by Dan Flores
If you weren't aware that the American War On Coyotes has been going on for longer than Vietnam, had more casualties than the Civil War, and was even more futile than the War On Drugs, you're in for a surprise.
I must admit to a certain fondness for coyotes. When I lived in Texas, I loved hearing their howls at dusk, their shapes framed against stark treeless hills and tall houses. I think they're gorgeous creatures, as far removed from the Looney Toons Coyote as a bean sprout from a redwood. While wolves are perhaps dearer to my heart, a coyote loping along a grassy trail is a rare and wonderful sight. So I have to admit that I was utterly shocked to discover that the US has been waging constant war on coyotes for well over a century.
Flores takes us from the dawn of coyote history and their tumultuous relationship with wolves to their first interactions with people. Coyotes were a semi-divine figure, both trickster and the butt of every joke, to an impressive number of Native American groups. For the Yanas and Navajos, Coyote was even bringer of death. Coyotes, or "coyotl," to give them the original Aztec name, have always been a cosmopolitan species, and they've apparently been living in urban environments for millennia: even the center of Tenochtitlan has an alley named "Coyoacan" ("place of the coyote"). Flores starts with the original myths ("The only thing smarter than coyote is God"), then takes us from Lewis and Clarke's "prairie wolves" to Twain's diatribe of them as "spiritless and cowardly" to the 1920 Scientific American article that proclaimed them as the "ORIGINAL BOLSHEVIK."
Flores estimates that we're still killing about half a million coyotes per year--that's about one per minute. Early Americans believed that their new country suffered from a "predator problem," and that wolves-- and to a lesser degree, coyotes-- needed to be extinguished to "save" both farmers and wildlife. (Apparently they never stopped to wonder how the deer managed before their arrival.) Settlers tried everything from lacing carcasses with strychnine powder to introducing sarcoptic mange into the wild canid populations. In the early 1900s, bounties for coyote "scalps" took about ⅔ of Montana's annual budget. Wolf populations collapsed, but coyotes, now viewed as "the archpredator of our time," remained constant. The Division of Biological Survey, created in the late 1800s, used only about 3% of its budget for scientific study. It saw its mission as solving the "predator problem," and it did so with gusto: by the mid-1920s, they had set out over 3.5M poison bait stations across the US. Hoover's "Animal Damage Control Act" earmarked $1M/year of federal funds for the eradication of coyote and other pests. The Biological Survey and Forest Service would eventually carpetbomb massive tracts of land with a series of poisons, including sodium cyanide, thallium sulfate, and Compound 1080--one which is still used today. As one member of the bureau put it during WW2:
"I hope I have three celebrations coming--when we whip Hitler and Hirohito and when we kill that damn coyote."
So how did coyotes survive? Flores postulates that their resilience is unique: they have fission-fusion societal structures, long childhoods where they can learn caution from their parents, and an impressive ability to increase litter size under environmental pressure from 5.7 pups to as many as 19. As secondary predators to wolves and later dogs, they learned vigilance and flexibility, even in diet: they're omnivorous, primarily eating small creatures such as mice, gophers, grasshoppers, and crickets, but they'll also happily scavenge for berries and plants as well as carrion. Their survivability in cities--sheltered from the aerial gunning of the country--is as high as that of national parks.
Flores takes us through all this and much else besides, from the effects of "The Great Dog War" of the mid-1800s to Disney's pivotal role in changing America's perspective on the coyote to the eventual political embrace of biocentrism to the repercussions of the first recorded death by coyote in 1980s LA. The book is utterly fascinating. My only caveat is that it's difficult to take the book without a grain of salt or two, and I ended up spending a lot of time fact-checking various statements. For example, he credulously repeats the old chestnut about canids only seeing in black and white, and his own political beliefs--in particular, a surprisingly virulent hatred of Reagan-- strongly color his narrative. His portrayal of red wolves, too, seemed to me to be incomplete, containing only the facts that support the narrative he wants. (I do, however, agree with Flores about the insanity of killing and sterilizing coyotes and wolf-coyote hybrids in the effort to preserve the "purity" of the red wolves.)
But what I simply couldn't wrap my head around was the American government's dogged determination to exterminate the coyote. The predator-killing bureau is still around-- since 1997, it's been euphemistically known as the Division of Wildlife Services, and it killed about 4M animals in 2013, a good proportion of them coyotes. These days, they mostly shoot them out of planes, but they've also experimented with sterilization. If you're interested in coyotes and America's fraught relationship with environmentalism and predators, Coyote America is definitely worth a look.
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Basic Books, in exchange for my honest review.~~