Outdoors: Predator or prey?

Bill Pastore of Dyer proudly hoists a La Porte County coyote that Jay called in on a recent hunt.

In recent years, predators such as coyotes have become so common that when somebody says, “I saw a coyote,” it hardly warrants a “wow” response.

Coyotes have become incredibly common. These clever predators have proven to be incredibly capable of adapting to just about any environment. Not surprisingly, they are often blamed for any reduction in game animal populations, regardless of the facts.

It should be noted that predators have always been a hot-button issue. Wherever large canids and felines exist, human interaction with them often amounts to something dying. A Bengal Tiger in India may have a taste for human flesh and kill dozens of humans over the course of its life, but more often than not the tiger will lose in the end.

Sadly, many predators that live in isolated parts of the planet and have virtually no exposure to humans and therefore are not a problem for us, still pay the price for just being a predator. Perhaps no other animal has carried the burden of such discrimination as the wolf.

While wolves are capable to killing large mammals such as deer and moose for food, it is not unusual for them to target livestock, which I’m sure is an easier kill. This is a great way to end up with a target on your back.

Wolves also tend to prey heavily on dense populations of ungulates, such as deer and elk in a given area, and hunters regularly sound the “kill them all” alarm. The saying, “shoot, shovel and shut-up” is a common saying in areas where wolves have decimated game mammal populations.

I’m quite a bit more pragmatic when it comes to the man vs. predators issue. The way I see it, predators were here first and co-evolved with their primary prey species.

It’s difficult for many people to understand, but deer are the way they are because of wolves, and to a much lesser degree, humans. Before hunting seasons were utilized by fish and wildlife agencies to control deer populations, natural predation from coyotes, wolves, bears, bobcat and cougar tended to the herd.

The popular notion that the land was teaming with game prior to man’s encroachment into North America may not be as accurate as we would like to think. Of course, there is historical evidence to suggest that many species were very plentiful and Native Americans as well as European settlers had little difficulty hunting them for food, clothing and tools.

That said, in many places populations are likely more dense now, as species are often relegated to only a small percentage of the landscape. Furthermore, agriculture that did not exist before has created a veritable smorgasbord of food for many species. More corn, means more prey and ultimately more predators.

Despite its immense size and diversity, the bison and elk populations of Yellowstone National Park have often been so high they essentially pushed the carrying capacity of the park to the max. This is a great example of how a given area can be encumbered by too many animals due to man’s stranglehold on the land. The same thing occurs on many small woodlots across the Midwest, albeit on a comparatively minute scale.

Just this week it was announced that hundreds of Yellowstone bison will be euthanized by authorities as their population is bursting at the seams, so to speak. Often these animals are utilized as “seed” herds for other parks and preserves in North America.

It’s interesting to note that wolves are often cited as being over-populated by the public — and in particular by ranchers and sportsmen. The ranchers are agitated that the wolves leave the park and beat up on their valuable livestock — the sportsman are miffed because they kill game mammals and in particular, elk. In the meantime the wolf lovers are in their glory.

Truth is, the wolf population of Yellowstone has begun to achieve balance with prey species. Yes, they have been responsible for the loss of many elk and in some cases, elk are scarce from their historic range. But, the wolves started to prey on bison to compensate for the lack of elk.

There are many wolves that have fed primarily on bison since they were welped, and it’s good bet they will continue to do so long after elk populations recover and disperse. It’s a balance that is tenuous but ideal.

It’s fairly horrifying for us to witness (or even imagine) a bison calf or any other animal taken down and consumed by a hungry pack of wolves. It bothers me just as much as the next guy, but I know that nature is often cruel.

Watching a fawn get whacked by a coyote is about as maddening as it gets. Of course, spring haying activity takes out tons of fawns as well. It’s best not to think about these nasty little details, you’ll sleep better.

To me, coyotes are far more destructive than wolves in the big picture. They are exponentially more plentiful and they have a far more diverse diet that ranges from full-grown adult deer all the way down to a tiny meadow voles, and everything in between. This is part of the secret to their success. These factors coupled with their exceptional intelligence allows them to flourish. The difference between wolves and coyotes is very slight, but from our perspective, wolves kill things that on average, are more important to us as a society.

I really like coyotes. I have a lot of respect for them. They are winners. But, much like the New England Patriots, coyotes are often vilified because they win by any means necessary. We hate them for that because when they do well, some of the things we like, lose. And they don’t even need to steal signs or deflate balls to do it.

I shot my first coyote sometime in the late-80s while quail hunting. They were a rarity then. Over the years, I’ve taken some with a bow while hunting deer and I’ve intentionally targeted them as well.

Some hunters, such as Cal Dittmar of New Carlisle, are master coyote hunters. He’s probably forgotten more than I’ll ever know about hunting them, but I do my best. Like anything, you learn as you go and La Porte County, as well as most of Indiana, is “blessed” with plenty of coyotes to help us through the education process.

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