In the past four decades, coyotes have moved into New Hampshire from the west, becoming a routine part of the landscape, and now some advocates think we shouldn’t be hunting them quite as much.
Linda Dionne, who openly speaks against hunting and trapping as part of a Manchester group called Voices for Wildlife, has petitioned the New Hampshire Fish and Game commissioners to change the rules, closing the coyote season from March 31 to Sept. 1, when pups are being raised.
The group argues that allowing hunting while young coyotes are being raised is cruel and increases the chances that a litter could be left to starve. They also say the coyote’s relentless expansion throughout North America has shown that hunting doesn’t work to control a species that is traditionally seen as a nuisance.
Their request was denied in a letter from Fish and Game Executive Director Glenn Normandeau.
“New Hampshire’s existing firearms season provides landowners and farmers with maximum flexibility in dealing with possible conflicts associated with coyotes,” Normandeau wrote, giving one of five reasons he listed for not opening the rule-making process. “The protection and promotion of agricultural interests and the protection of individual property rights have often been noted by the legislature to be priority interests of the state.”
Coyotes can be hunted during the daytime all year round in New Hampshire, as is the case in most neighboring states, and hunted at night from January through March. Trapping season is limited to winter.
The Voices of Wildlife group said it would continue to raise the issue.
“The firearm’s season is for recreational hunting. Having a closed recreational hunting season would not impact the resolution of possible conflicts associated with coyotes. Nothing would change regarding property owners being allowed to use lethal measures to handle an individual conflict,” the group wrote in response to Normandeau.
“The coyote is here to stay and that is a well-known fact. As one good conservationist in New Hampshire put it, ‘We have been at war with the coyote for about a hundred years now, and the coyote won.’ What we are arguing is that it is cruel to kill coyote parents when they are rearing their young, and that it is unnecessary.”
Coyotes are, in some ways, a great success story for wildlife rehabilitation, returning an alpha predator to many ecosystems. Yet it is a success that has occurred entirely in the face of human opposition.
Coyotes are members of the canine family, along with dogs, foxes and wolves, and are not native to New England. They originated in the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S., but have been expanding throughout North America for at least a century, filling an ecological niche left by the elimination of wolves, cougars and other large predators.
The first verified account of a coyote in New Hampshire was in Grafton County in 1944, according to state records, but they only began to spread throughout the state in the 1970s and are now widespread. About 5,000 are thought to live in New Hampshire.
The coyote population can expand relatively quickly because females are willing to travel long distances from where they were born before making dens and having pups, unlike the females of many other carnivore species. This allows a breeding population to get established quickly in new territory.
More importantly, they are generalists that will eat almost anything and can adapt to life in many circumstances, from the deep woods to suburbia to the most urban of areas. Coyotes are now found all along the East Coast from Maine to Florida, even on islands like Nantucket and deep in cities like Boston and New York.
Although details are still being studied, it appears that during their eastward expansion the western coyote interbred with some domesticated dogs and with red wolves, which are larger than coyotes but smaller than gray wolves. As a result, the eastern coyote is larger and distinct from the western coyote, to the point that they are sometimes considered a distinct breed.
Most states allow coyotes to be hunted all year round. Massachusetts allows coyote hunting from October to March, while Vermont and Maine allow it all year round. All states have limits on night hunting and on trapping, if the latter is allowed at all.
Out West, where the coyote’s reputation as a livestock killer persists, many states even allow coyote-hunting contests, which award prizes for the most kills in a short period.
Some biologists argue that, counterintuitively, extensive hunting is one reason that coyotes have spread so quickly throughout North America.
Chris Schadler, a conservation biologist, wildlife advocate and author of a book about coyotes called Becoming Wolf: The Eastern Coyote in New England, argued before the Fish and Game commission that year-round hunting actually increases the number of coyotes.
As she explained it, coyotes are pack animals, living in small groups that are dominated by a matriarch, usually the oldest female, who is the only female that has pups.
These packs can undergo a process known as “responsive reproduction,” in which the number of young produced increases when the pack is pressured. This is particularly true if the matriarch is killed, which indirectly gives all the other females in the pack permission to have their own litters – meaning that a successful hunt might result in a larger pack next year.
The issue of coyote hunting came up at the last legislative session, when a bill was debated that would have extended the nighttime hunting of the animals, beyond the current January-through-March limit. The measure died in committee.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)