While the exact number of coyotes roaming the varied landscapes of the local region is debated, most people agree the sometimes pesky yet highly intelligent creatures populate the area in significant numbers.
Coyotes are among nature’s most adaptable animals, and the region’s variety of landscapes — from verdant wooded areas and plentiful lakes and rivers to hundreds of farms and even the occasional cityscape — make for prime coyote-habitat.
“They’re part of the landscape,” said David Drake, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They are super-smart animals, and they are really adaptable, in food patterns and in types of landscape they can utilize.”
“They always say ‘the last thing that’s going to be on earth is a coyote,’” said Tim Gavinski, a Wisconsin Dells native and one of the region’s long-time coyote hunters. “They’re like rabbits — any section (of hunting land) you go into, you can find a coyote.”
You can find coyotes in areas much less favorable to wildlife than the local region, according to wildlife experts, including downtown Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison. They exist in every Wisconsin county in varying numbers.
A perfect home
But the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ description of the ideal coyote habitat could just as easily be a description of the local region and its wide variety of land uses: “Coyotes prefer woodland edges and brushy areas that provide adequate cover; however, they readily use farm fields, parkways, riverways, parks and other areas with natural vegetation in city and residential developments,” reported a story in the DNR magazine Wisconsin Natural Resources. “Coyotes routinely travel a territory, which may include your back yard.”
That may also include your farm, as virtually any regional farmer will confirm, or in your rural neighborhood, where coyotes are well known for their chorus of “vocalizations” across the landscape any many a night, in every season.
Opinions vary regarding their relative value to the region, but everyone with an opinion about coyotes agrees they live here in significant numbers — in spite of state regulations that allow hunting coyotes year-round.
“Our regulations are pretty open as far as the harvest of coyotes goes,” said Shawn Rossler, the DNR furbearer ecologist who oversees the agency’s management of coyotes and other fur-bearing creatures across the state. “We have regulated trapping seasons, a hunting season year-round and control guidelines that allow the removal of them outside of the trapping season through trapping if conflicts or issues with them arise. Our regulations are pretty open, but with all that they have continued to do really well in Wisconsin, and they are found throughout the state in every county.”
Coyotes can live just about anywhere, and “they will eat anything,” said Drake, which officially makes them “omnivores.”
Besides those adaptable qualities, coyotes do something else extremely effectively, in fair weather and in foul:
“They are really good at making more coyotes,” Rossler said.
Coyotes also are among nature’s most efficient predators, which means they will catch, kill and eat most any animal either smaller than them or vulnerable enough to be hunted. Unfortunately for many a farmer or rural landowner in the south-central region, that can mean some livestock and domestic pets, and sometimes even deer, can become part of the coyotes’ omnivorous diet.
That unswerving predatory nature puts coyotes in an unpopular category of Wisconsin critter.
A troublesome pest
“We have a real love-hate relationship with them, and it’s more on the negative than the positive side,” Drake said. “I think what you’d find if you talked to people, regardless of their familiarity with coyotes, is you would get a relatively strong opinion about them. They are one of the species that have been persecuted as long as humans have walked the earth.”
Terry Cook considers himself among those with a negative opinion of coyotes, and his regional farming heritage combined with his current occupation and relatively urbane lifestyle gives him a unique yet highly representative perspective.
Cook, who lives on his family’s long-time Dell Prairie farm but operates a business in downtown Wisconsin Dells and admits he has more domestic pets than livestock these days, refers to coyotes as “a nuisance animal.”
“I don’t like coyotes,” he said. “They’re a threat to wildlife, a threat to the farm animals, a threat to household pets and they populate super-fast.”
He believes the coyote population in the region’s northern reaches has decimated the deer population by preying on fawns and the does giving birth to them, and he’d like to see a more robust coyote hunting presence across the area. He once witnessed a coyote in hot pursuit of a buck across his land, and he believes coyotes have reduced other species of wildlife across the area.
“In God’s world, there are no nuisance animals,” Cook said, but he also believes a reduction in coyotes in his area “would increase the population of wildlife.”
Coyotes and deer
A year-old DNR study in Grant and Iowa counties aims to answer whether Cook and his countless landowning brethren across the region with similar opinions about coyotes are correct, at least when it comes to deer.
The DNR’s Southwest Wisconsin CWD Deer Predator Project has begun to examine the nexus between the region’s deer — both healthy and those suffering from Chronic Wasting Disease — and coyotes and bobcats, both of whom most believe prey on deer.
Thus far the study has tracked the movements — and in some cases the fates — of 200 deer across the two counties, in an area that stretches from Wisconsin’s south-western border to the southern edge of Sauk County.
Eight coyotes and eight bobcats also have been caught and fitted with special collars that allow DNR researchers, led by Furbear Research Scientist Nathan Roberts, to track all of the animals’ movements and ultimately determine how much their interactions affects the deer population.
“We’re trying to get an idea of the impact coyotes have on deer, and in particular the role coyotes might play in disease ecology and Chronic Wasting Disease ecology down there,” Roberts said.
Whether coyotes perhaps play a positive role in reducing the number of deer with CWD is one question the study may answer, as well as how much of a negative effect the predators have on deer populations in general, Roberts said.
“When a deer dies, we can go in and see what killed it,” he said. “If it was predation from one of these animals, coyote or bobcat, or something else — for example, domestic dogs — we can find out.”
Adding more coyotes to the study remains a goal as it proceeds, Roberts said, and the DNR is looking for trappers willing to help catch more in the two southwestern counties.
“We will sign trappers up and will pay them for it, and we can put collars on the coyotes,” Roberts said. “We are always looking for ways to be cost effective and ways to get the public involved.”
A part of nature
Another ongoing study of coyotes with regional implications is the University of Wisconsin’s Urban Canid Project in Madison, led by Drake. In its fourth year, the project has documented urban-area interactions between the “less than 50” coyotes who populate the downtown areas of Madison and the humans who encounter them.
The project tracks urban-dwelling coyotes and foxes, many of them fitted with radio signal-emitting collars, to “study where the animals roam and get an idea about the interactions they may be having with people and other animals,” said the project’s website (uwurbancanidproject.weebly.com).
A project Facebook page (entitled “UW Urban Canid Project”) and a web page for reporting coyote sightings or encounters in Madison (at https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/project/4474) have augmented the effort and allowed local residents to get involved in an area where “peaceful coexistence” may be more of a priority and hunting them not as convenient.
“Coyotes are serving a purpose, absolutely,” Drake said. “They are a native species of wildlife in Wisconsin, and they biologically belong here.”
Because the highly adaptable creatures are here to stay, Drake said, making an effort to perhaps better understand them while also taking proper precautions when in close proximity to them might be a good idea for the urban-dwelling human.
“In the nighttime, they might be going through the yard and you don’t even know it, and occasionally you will see one out during the day,” he said. “Most of the time, the coyote is just going about its business, and we hope people chalk it up to the rarity of seeing one and say, ‘hey, it was pretty neat to see that animal.’”
Between Drake’s obvious appreciation and respect for coyotes and Cook’s annoyance with the creature is the opinion of Gavinski, which may best sum up the region’s relationship to the creature.
He not only has hunted coyotes several times every winter for more than a decade with his Running Walker Foxhounds and a host of hunting friends from across the region, he once personally witnessed a nighttime predation by a coyote of a domestic pet — his own cat.
The incident occurred on the front porch of his home northeast of the downtown Dells, and as sad as he was to lose his cat, which he was preparing to feed early that morning when the coyote showed up, Gavinski understood exactly why it happened. And it did not diminish his opinion of the predator involved.
“They’re a very smart animal,” he said. “That’s why I enjoy hunting them the most out of any animal, because they’re such a smart animal. They’re very challenging to hunt. It’s hard to get one.”
This article was changed at 9:31 a.m. Sept. 27, 2017 to correct an error regarding some places in the world coyotes live.