Cities have a coyote problem. As the New York Times reported on Tuesday, hunters are increasingly trying to manage the urban coyote populations that have merged with human communities as the latter has spread throughout the continent.
There are plenty of concerns about how wise it is to carry hunting rifles into densely populated cities to shoot canines. But beyond the risks to innocent bystanders and the debate over whether growing urban coyote populations even pose a serious threat to humans, there’s one critical fact that we must keep in mind when deciding if we should hunt urban coyotes: Doing so will likely just make the problem worse.
According to the Times:
Some carnivore ecologists argue, though, that moving the hunt into cities will be self-defeating. They say it replicates the very tactics that have allowed coyotes to prosper despite a concerted onslaught against them. In an adaptation that biologists call fission-fusion, when coyotes come under pressure from hunters, their packs split up into lone animals and pairs, they start producing much larger litters, and they migrate into new areas.
Coyotes are notorious for rapidly adapting to changing circumstances. Rather than retreating into natural environments as cities and suburbs grew, many coyote populations have simply adapted to city life, establishing populations in Tucson or San Francisco or New York City or Washington. As nocturnal animals, they’ve learned to hunt for rats, mice, squirrels, and other urban prey at night. They generally avoid contact with humans.
This adaptability is why ecologists doubt that hunting these creatures will make much of a difference to their urban presence. As the theory of fission-fusion suggests, coyotes have no problem abandoning their normal packs to split up into smaller groups or start hunting as individuals. And when populations are pressured, litter sizes double or triple from the norm of about five or six pups. Families use their nighttime howling and yips to basically take a census of the regional population. When howls go unanswered, the biological response in these animals is to generate a litter that could be as large as 16 pups. Trying to hunt down a family of coyotes might reduce numbers for a season, but it essentially creates a scattering effect that yields more families in more places, with higher brood numbers the following year.
We can see the results of this adaptation in real time. Eradication efforts currently kill up to half a million coyotes a year, but coyote populations have continued to rise to all-time highs. The animals continue to be the biggest killer of livestock in western North America. Plus, urban coyotes seem to be experiencing higher life expectancies than their rural counterparts.
Coyotes are far from endangered. They don’t need our protection, so hunting them is arguably an ethical choice. But given what we know about fission-fusion, hunters who claim they are doing a community service by hunting urban coyotes are fooling themselves and the cities they claim to help. Even if coyotes pose an aggressive danger to people (a debatable premise), hunting them will simply exacerbate the problem. This time around, hunters can’t use conservation management as a legitimate reason for their sport. Perhaps we should try to learn to live with them instead.