Wily coyote finding life on Kenai Peninsula much to its liking

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2000

The box says Acme Explosives: the target is that pesky roadrunner that zips through the desert canyons with one goal in life -- to tantalize Wile E. Coyote.

In cartoons, the coyote is always the victim of his own schemes; he gets bulldozed, blown up and otherwise clobbered in every episode. In real life, however, the tables are turned. It is the coyote that has the brains, the cunning and the determination to survive.

Coyotes are actually doing quite well across North America. While most other larger carnivores, such as the brown bear, wolf and lynx, have declined because of human encroachment and habitat loss, the coyote has adapted to living in the urban and suburban environment.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, coyotes were found in the central part of the U.S. and in northern Mexico. Today their range extends from Panama to Alaska, including all of the Lower 48 states. The elimination of wolves from much of their historic range in North America has allowed the coyote to move in and increase its population and range with little competition.

In Alaska, coyotes were first noted in the early 1900s. Populations were reported on the mainland of southeast Alaska, then slowly expanded northward into the upper Tanana Valley, from which they radiated out in all directions. There are fewer coyotes north of the Yukon River.

Coyotes probably expanded to the Kenai Peninsula when wolf numbers were extremely low due to predator control efforts in the 1920s through 1950s. Coyotes filled the niche the wolf left and may have reduced or eliminated the peninsula's red fox population through competition.

However, all that changed when wolves returned and naturally recolonized the Kenai Peninsula in the 1960s. Coyotes continue to exist, but now they share the peninsula with another (and larger) canid species that does not tolerate them very well. In most cases, wolves are fiercely protective of their territories and will kill any coyote they encounter.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge studies of this rather unique coexistence of wolves and coyotes suggest that there is little direct competition for food resources. From scat analysis, we have found coyotes to rely primarily on snowshoe

hares, porcupines, small mammals and roadkills, while wolves prefer moose. Coyotes have also learned to avoid wolf packs because a confrontation usually results in the coyote's death. However, on one occasion several winters ago, as I watched a wolf pack feed on a moose kill, I observed a wary coyote come out of the trees and sneak quick bites of the moose carcass after the wolves retreated into the woods to rest.

Studies in Minnesota and Michigan have documented coyotes living on the periphery of wolf packs and scavenging off their kills after the pack leaves the area.

Coyotes living close to human populations are usually safe from wolf encounters. Being true generalists, coyotes can change their diet from natural wild prey to accommodate whatever is available in an urban setting. Most of the time, coyotes go out of their way to avoid humans, but they are discovering that humans are a good source of food. This behavior can sometimes lead to conflicts with humans who own livestock and domestic pets.

Coyotes are opportunistic. They will kill and eat small dogs and house cats and will even make a meal out of pet food or table scraps that are left outside. If certain precautions are followed, these kinds of encounters with coyotes can be minimized. Not allowing your domestic pets to roam freely and securing your livestock will probably keep a coyote from eyeing your turkey, cat, poodle or rabbit as its next meal. Keeping your trash containers closed and pet food in the house or barn will make these resources unavailable to coyotes.

The coyote, being one of the Kenai Peninsula's newest residents, has found its niche on the here, both within the wilderness of the refuge as well as in our back yards. The next time you hear the coyote's high-pitched yips, barks and howls, think about how this clever canine has learned to "roll with the punches and go with the flow."

If only we humans could be so adaptable.

Elizabeth Jozwiak is a wildlife biologist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. She studies a variety of Alaska birds and mammals, but her current interest focuses on wolves.

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Previous Refuge Notebook columns can be viewed on the Web at http://kenai.fws.gov.

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