By Matt Stansberry, Illustrations by David Wilson
I had just started learning how to cross-country ski, and jumped at the opportunity to glide over fresh unbroken powder, to be the first set of tracks.
Solitude isn’t easy to come by in Northeast Ohio, especially in a national park that claims 2.2 million visits per year, but I knew I’d have the place to myself; the parking lot was empty.
I snapped my boots into the bindings, and swished into a dark tunnel of woods. Fluffy snow absorbed and dampened sound on this eerily quiet night. The lights of Cleveland bled into the orange-black horizon as I headed north, downriver.
About a mile into the trip, I heard them, coyotes calling off to my right. They must have been very close. It could have been a pair of animals, or maybe a dozen.
Just two coyotes howling together can sound like a large group, an evolutionary strategy to keep intruders guessing on the size of the pack. A single animal makes a variety of howls, barks, and yips. Also, the sound distorts as it carries through the woods, echoing back on itself, changing pitch to sound like multilayered, multianimal calls. Biologists call it the Beau Geste Effect.
Intellectually, I knew it should only be a couple animals, each weighing slightly more than the fattest house cat. But alone in the winter woods, you can convince yourself of a lot of things. There was enough of a wolfish howl in the call to set my pre-Holocene brain spinning.
If you are picturing me as some trim outdoorsy hipster, now might be a good time to disabuse you of that notion. Rather, imagine George Costanza on a NordicTrack.
[blocktext align=”right”]I’d been drinking Baileys with coffee and eating chicken pot pies all day. I was soft and tasty, far easier prey than any deer in the woods.[/blocktext]I fell down in the snow. I couldn’t get up. I’d been drinking Baileys with coffee and eating chicken pot pies all day. I was soft and tasty, far easier prey than any deer in the woods.
Despite years of environmental activism and rooting for our natural predators, knowing coyote attacks are exceedingly rare, I still felt that primal fear, alone in the dark, tangled up in a pair of goddamn skis.
I knew they had been watching me flail like overweight, potentially injured quarry down the path. I also knew that coyotes become more aggressive during the mating season from January to March.
I imagined myself swinging my ski poles in a circle around a pit of canine rage. It felt like some real Jack London stuff — even with the lights of a strip mall glowing beyond the hill.
Somehow I pushed myself off the ground and chuffed back to the car, straining hard to hear the pack pacing me in the shadows.
The industrial upper midwest is crawling with coyotes. There are an estimated 2,000 of them living in the Chicago area, one of the most studied urban coyote populations.
No one has assigned a number to the population in Northeast Ohio, but biologists assume it is large and growing. Native to the plains and deserts of the West, the coyotes have steadily migrated east across the North American continent, brilliant opportunists exploiting a range of habitats, including urban areas.
Two coyotes were caught in Manhattan in January 2015 alone.
[blocktext align=”left”]”They are incredibly adaptable and will eat anything. You can’t stop them.”[/blocktext]The earliest documented coyote in Ohio was reported in 1919, and today they are everywhere, all 88 counties. “There was a time when there were no coyotes east of the Mississippi River,” said Suzi Prange, the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s furbearer biologist. “We did two things – we extirpated the wolves and opened the forests. That’s why they were able to colonize the entire United States. They are the most persecuted animal in the country, and yet they still expand their range. You knock their populations down and they just have more pups. They are incredibly adaptable and will eat anything. You can’t stop them.”
But do they need to be stopped? In October 2009, two coyotes killed a 19-year-old folk singer who was hiking in eastern Canada. It was the first documented fatal coyote attack on an adult human. Despite this tragic and aberrant incident, coyote attack is one of the least likely ways by which anyone could die.
Parks districts post warnings and acknowledge that coyote attacks can happen. But Ohio State University Associate Professor and Wildlife Specialist Stanley Gehrt guesses about two people get bitten by coyotes in Ohio each year. Compare that to the nearly 4.5 million Americans that are bitten by dogs annually.
If you’re not an infant or Pomeranian alone in coyote country, you’re probably going to be fine. And yet, with predators, there is a tension between what we know rationally about the animals and what we imagine they are capable of doing.
My backyard in Cleveland’s southern suburbs is part of a coyote’s territory. One morning last month, I found tracks about two and a half inches long in fresh snow. The canid slipped through my neighbor’s yard and into mine, on a night that the temperature was below zero with a stabbing wind chill. No dog was left outside that night.
Now I look out every time the motion-sensor light goes off on the back porch, scanning the shadows for the wolf-like invader that made those tracks under my kids’ swing set.
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has an outdoor live animal exhibit with a couple dozen native Ohio species in a zoo-like scenario. One day my two-year-old ran past the coyote’s cage, and it darted out of its shelter and bit the wire, bared its teeth and paced my little boy, snarling and chasing him down the length of the enclosure. I can still picture the coyote’s teeth flashing against the cage.
In January 2014, the PBS show Nature premiered an episode called “Meet the Coywolf” that painted a picture of the Eastern Coyote as evolving toward the role of the extirpated Eastern Timber Wolf.
The show focused on these facts: Eastern Coyotes are bigger than their western counterparts; they eat more whitetail deer than coyotes in the West; and north of the Great Lakes they are hybridizing with wolves.
OSU’s Gehrt was prominently featured in the show, and he is not convinced that the “coywolf” narrative is accurate.
“The misperception from that show is that there’s a difference between a coywolf and a midwestern coyote. They’re all coyotes. There may be a few with wolf genes, some with dog genes. But that is the nature of the genus,” Gehrt says.
“The Native Americans thousands of years ago referred to the coyotes as tricksters that can change shape or role in whatever story they’re telling. I view the whole genetics thing as another version of being a trickster. They don’t conform to our nice clean version of how nature is supposed to work.”
Eastern Coyotes are statistically larger than their western counterparts. In areas of eastern Canada, where the population is almost entirely coyote-wolf hybrids, they are four pounds heavier on average than Chicago coyotes.
But Gehrt says that statistic is misleading. The biggest coyotes in Chicago are as large as the biggest coy-wolves.
“There’s a statistical difference in size, but we don’t know if they’re actually evolving to become larger,” Gehrt says. “That small amount of species introgression is linked to the slightly larger body size. But is that selection or just a product of historical breeding? There is an evolutionary cost to being larger. No one ever points that out. We don’t know if it’s an adaptive selection or not.”
One year after the show aired, Gehrt still receives multiple emails per day from folks who think they have spotted coywolves in their yards.
[blocktext align=”right”]Just a hint of the word “wolf” and we’re off on an emotional roller coaster.[/blocktext]Just a hint of the word “wolf” and we’re off on an emotional roller coaster.
Two hundred years ago, the Ohio countryside was full of wolves.
On Christmas Eve in 1818, some 600 hunters slaughtered 21 bears, 17 wolves, 300 deer, and hundreds of smaller animals that were thought to be threatening the farm crops and livestock during the Great Hinckley Hunt, 25 miles south of Cleveland in Medina County.
According to an account by Charles Neil in History of Medina County and Ohio (1881): “The order was that the farmers gather by early daybreak, armed with rifles, guns, pitchforks, flails, clubs, and every available implement of war; form a continuous line on the four sides of the township, and, at a given signal, advance toward its center, killing, shooting and slaughtering all game that came within reach.” Via the Akron Beacon-Journal
We have a long history of wantonly killing predators.
Today, Ohio’s wolves are long gone. In some people’s minds, coyotes are filling that niche. But what’s happening on an ecosystem level is more complex and varied.
The narrative lens we view the coyote through reflects our own anxieties. Especially with predators, we tend to generalize, to simplify – to reduce animals into two-dimensional symbols.
On the other hand, Marlo Perdicas, Park Biologist with Summit Metro Parks in Akron, has spent the last five years studying coyotes in the Cuyahoga River Valley, and has come away with an intimate view of these animals’ lives.
Perdicas and a team of researchers started putting radio collars on coyotes in 2009, and over three years captured and tracked around 40 animals. The study area focused on parklands between Cleveland and Akron: Cleveland Metroparks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and Summit Metro Parks.
“We just tried to answer some basic questions: Home range size, what they are eating, where are they living, what habitats they’re using,” says Perdicas. “We have this natural connected space of 40,000 acres, mixed with the valley floodplain, woodlands, wetlands, and farm lands. So how are the coyotes using it?”
The data Perdicas and her team collected points to a healthy population, poised for further growth. The average coyote weighed around thirty pounds. The largest animal in the study weighed 42 pounds.
“All of the data suggested coyotes are doing really well here and there is room for the population to grow,” Perdicas says. “We probably aren’t at our carrying capacity yet.”
Coyotes are territorial. They stake out a home range, creating a spatial map in their minds of major structures like highways, the river, and power line corridors.
“They recognize those structures in the environment as borders. They patrol those areas and maintain the home ranges, usually an alpha male and alpha female and some offspring,” Perdicas says. “Males and females mate for life, breeding once a year in January, and having pups in the spring. They take care of each other and the pups.”
As part of the study, Perdicas also installed wildlife cameras to observe the coyote families. Typically, there were three to five pups per litter. Some pups left the family group as young as six months old, other stayed two to three years and help raise the following litter.
“We saw both males and females moving pups from one den to another, bringing food back, playing with them,” Perdicas said. “The male and female bond is really strong. If one individual of the pair dies, at that time the male or female will find a new mate. They’ll maintain that home range as long as they’re alive unless something tips that balance.”
One of the main reasons for the study was to document coyote interaction with human park visitors. The study used infrared trail monitoring and radio telemetry to compare radio-collared coyote activity with hiker activity.
As you might expect, coyotes prefer to stay away from people. During the day when park visitation is high, coyotes would stay farther from established trails. But at night and in the mornings, they would take the easiest travel routes, using trails and other manmade corridors to move quickly and avoid dangerous roads.
According to the study, road kill is the number one cause of coyote mortality in the Cuyahoga Valley.
“I always heard coyotes were very smart, but I was still surprised at their intelligence,” Perdicas says. “For example, the oldest coyote we studied lives in O’Neil Woods. He would sleep until about eleven o’clock at night, and then come out and start hunting. Many of the other coyotes would come out earlier in the evening. We got the impression he did that to avoid traffic because his territory crossed many busy roads. You’d see these older animals and get a sense they’d been around the block. They’d learned to adapt to the environment in the Cuyahoga Valley.”
[blocktext align=”right”]”I think coyotes in our ecosystem are a really good addition. There is value in having predators. They are a necessary part of the equation.”[/blocktext]The study is wrapping up now for Perdicas’s team at Summit Metro Parks, but she has handed the baton and the radio telemetry resources to Cleveland Metroparks, to further research on coyote behavior.
“I find a lot of people who dislike coyotes. I find a lot of people who are fearful of predators. I certainly respect those feelings, but after studying coyotes, they’re one of my favorite species,” Perdicas says. “I better understand why they do what they do. I appreciate that they have a very close family unit. I think coyotes in our ecosystem are a really good addition. There is value in having predators. They are a necessary part of the equation.”
Over millennia, our ecosystem evolved to include predators. For decades, those predators have been missing. Now that we have a highly successful predatory canid in the woods, what are the impacts on our existing species?
Will the coyotes thin our ubiquitous herds of suburban Whitetail Deer? The short answer – not so far.
“If you look at the trend of the Ohio deer population in the last twenty years, and overlay with coyotes, they’re both going up,” Prange says.
The coyotes in the Cuyahoga Valley tend to mostly eat meadow voles and small rabbits. They also eat deer, but it’s primarily spring fawns and winter road kill. Coyotes can and do kill adult deer, but aren’t putting a dent in the population, at least in our area.
“In Cleveland, the coyotes are not having much of an effect on the deer population at all,” Gehrt says. “More frequently, we see the deer kicking the butts of the coyotes during the fawning season. We also find that some deer are getting smart and have their fawns near people for extra safety.”
Chicago on the other hand, is a different story. “In Chicago, the coyotes hammer the fawn population,” Gehrt says. “The coyote population is sky high. Predator density is a lot higher. When deer drop their fawns, there’s a price to be paid.”
Canada geese are also bearing the brunt of the coyote success. And frankly, I couldn’t be happier. I hope coyotes can beat back the mobs of hissing, shitting, snake-headed vermin.
In Chicago, they’ve dropped the growth rate of Canada geese by eating eggs. “Half of all goose nests in Chicago are predated by coyotes,” Gehrt says. “Geese defend their nests against most other animals, and even people, but when a coyote comes, they get out of the nest.”
Before coyotes became established in Chicago, the geese population was growing on average 10-15% year-over-year, according to Gehrt. Since coyotes have become established, the growth rate has only been about 1%.
[blocktext align=”left”]The coyotes are also having an impact on the feral cat population, which has the trickledown effect of benefitting songbirds.[/blocktext]The coyotes are also having an impact on the feral cat population, which has the trickledown effect of benefitting songbirds. But not all of the impacts are so benign. There has been a striking negative correlation in coyote numbers and fox populations across the midwest.
“Red foxes show the decline to some degree, but gray foxes have disappeared in a lot of areas,” Gehrt says. “Gray and red foxes had been common in Chicago. We started a radio collar study when we noticed the dramatic decline. The foxes were dying as fast as we could collar them from direct coyote predation.
“At the beginning of the study, foxes were still able to eke out an existence where the coyotes were least abundant, places close to people — cemeteries or golf courses. As the coyote population continued to grow in Chicago, the foxes eventually were overrun. The last couple pockets of foxes were in neighborhoods. These were the only places where foxes persisted, literally living under people. The neighborhoods adopted them.”
I thought back on the last two years, how many red foxes I’ve seen in my neighborhood. I had taken the occurrences as a sign of a healthy fox population, but that was a false impression. “Red foxes are able to stick really, really close to people,” Gehrt says. “Visibility goes up, but that doesn’t mean the numbers are going up.”
Across the entire midwest and Great Lakes, gray foxes are no longer showing up in state furbearer harvest data. “Usually you have to be careful when you deal with fur data, because the influence of economy and fur prices. But the fur trappers are not finding gray foxes. Gray fox prices have been relatively high, so if there’s a bias, there should be a bias for more gray fox showing up in the pelts. But when you talk to trappers, all of the pockets where they used to be guaranteed catching 2-3 animals each year, those have all disappeared.”
If you go to the southeast, gray foxes are still relatively common. There is something in the habitat, or coyote densities that allow this animal to persist. Gehrt doesn’t expect the gray foxes to be federally listed as endangered, but does expect statewide listings for gray fox in the near future.
While we may be losing one predator in Ohio, we are likely gaining two more.
Over the past few years, Northeast Ohioans have increasingly reported black bear sightings, including bears wandering through Cleveland’s suburban areas of Brecksville and Bedford.
Generally speaking the bears are two-year-old males, dispersed from their mothers in their home ranges in Pennsylvania, in the midsummer when the breeding season peaks.
“They are teenage boys out on their own for the first time,” Prange says. “They don’t really know what they’re doing , just looking for food and girls, hanging out at backyard bird feeders and getting into people’s trash. A lot of times, these young males don’t find females, they go back.”
Males disperse hundreds of miles away from their mother, while females settle down next to their mother’s territory. Female bear ranges move very slowly, while males disperse more quickly. Bears are given State Endangered Species status in Ohio, which means they are protected from hunting.
“As a biologist, I say they have a place in the ecosystem, they have a niche here, they evolved here, they have a purpose in the ecosystem,” Prange said. “It’s our responsibility to protect and reestablish native species. We also have to look at what level the human population can tolerate, but the studies we’ve done show that the public is pretty pro-bear.”
While the majority of bears are just males passing through, Ohio does seem to have a very small resident population, including a resident bear in Summit Metro Parks’ Liberty Park in Twinsburg.
“The green space we have in Summit County is connected to Portage and that’s the direction the Pennsylvania bears are coming from,” Perdicas says. “There is ecologically a push among conservation organizations to connect green space and it really takes large tracts of connected land to sustain bears. That’s one of the reasons they were extirpated in the first place.”
The other predator moving into Ohio, on the lips and minds of every solo hiker, is the cougar or mountain lion.
Prange doesn’t believe we have resident cougars in Ohio yet. But they are coming.
“An Ohio wildlife officer saw a cougar last year on a bike path,” Prange says. “There was just a mountain lion killed in Kentucky, 70 miles from Cincinnati. So I think we’ll start having sightings over the next few years, like the states to the west of us. Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky – the cougars have been moving eastward for a while.”
A lot of people swear cougars are already here, living in the forests of Southern Ohio, but none have yet shown up on wildlife cameras or left any physical evidence that would be required for a confirmed sighting by the Cougar Network, a research organization tracking the eastward movement of mountain lions. Check out the map here.
“There are breeding mountain lions as close as northeast Oklahoma, which is not that far considering how far they can disperse,” Prange says. “We really expected a lot of reaction to the cougar sighting by the wildlife officer, but there wasn’t any uproar. There have been quite a few sightings in Illinois. We might get our first cougar next year, it might be ten years.”
Are we ready?
“I imagine there will be strong feelings against it, and concern, and other people that will be glad to have them back. We’ll just have to see when it happens, how everybody is going to react. We don’t have a mountain lion plan yet,” Prange says.
There have been around 70 fatal black bear attacks in North America since 1900, largely by big male bears actually predating on us – seeing humans as prey. Fewer than 25 fatal mountain lion attacks have occurred in the same time period.
We are not psychologically prepared to coexist with human-eating predators in Cleveland. But as animals slowly migrate into a reforested Rust Belt and learn to accommodate us, hopefully we can learn to coexist.
I for one, welcome back our peers at the top of the food chain.
Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFsh. More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.
Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Preorder copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here.
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