Why We Need Coyotes in Our Wildlands
They are known to biologists as keystone species– an animal that keeps the ecosystem intact by what it eats and what it doesn’t eat. The name comes from the top piece in a Roman arch, a wedge that is the last stone hammered into place. Without the keystone, the archway collapses.
In local deserts, the keystone species are kangaroo rats, ceaselessly vacuuming up seeds and seedlings, preventing weeds and shrubs from colonizing. Without them, open desert converts into dry grassland, and desert wildlife disappears. Wildfires spread between the widely spaced desert shrubs that are not prepared to withstand the flames.
The coyote serves as the keystone species in our local fragmented sage scrub communities, where they control the number of bobcats, raccoons, foxes, skunks, opossums, and house cats. These mid-sized animals are major predators of native birds and other small wildlife – like woodrats, rabbits, pocket mice and lizards. Coyotes don’t necessarily eat the smaller predators, but they discourage them, and keep their numbers from getting too large.
This insight came from field studies by ecologist Michael Soulé, in 37 wild canyons next to urban development in San Diego. Coyotes made the difference between keeping native birds and small wildlife or losing them in a few years.
Canyons with coyotes contained thriving native bird and mammal populations. But in canyons with no coyotes, native wildlife was virtually eliminated by the assault of bobcats, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and feral cats. The few remaining native wildlife were those already able to live in our back yards, such as gophers, mockingbirds, house finches, and black phoebes. A shorter list of species replaced the missing natives: nonnative house sparrows, pigeons, starlings, roof rats and house mice from adjacent development. That’s why wildlife agencies insist that builders leave coyote corridors between wild areas when development encroaches.
How we don’t keep coyotes out of our neighborhoods
Coyotes snatching cats and small dogs from urban-edge backyards raise fear and the ire of residents. New homes in the foothills, and urban edge neighborhoods next to protected open space, are particularly favored by hungry, curious wildlife, including coyotes. More often than not, the local animal control officer finds that residents are feeding the wildlife accidentally or on purpose (the latter is already illegal in several cities). If food and or water are readily available, the animals will return. We will have created nuisance animals out of wild animals.
My colleague, Dr. Richard Zembal, now natural resources director at the Orange County Water District in Fountain Valley, was the driving force behind creation of the nationally recognized Coyote Canyon/Bonita Creek Wildlife Habitat Corridor, which connects Upper Newport Bay to the rest of the greenbelt open space. He says that “coyotes are native dogs. They behave the way canines are supposed to behave, but they can be taught by us to associate people with easy food, leading to problems. We need coyotes for the important role they play in the natural world. If you are fortunate enough to live near or spend a lot of time in our remaining natural lands, help protect our native dogs by reinforcing their innate wariness toward people. Only you can prevent more escapades from yet another ‘bad dog’.”
Coyotes aren’t the only nuisance. Raccoons discovered garbage cans decades ago. Squabbling crows also pull out interesting items from over-stuffed garbage bins. Free-roaming neighborhood dogs used to have that job. In Mammoth Lakes, beset with urbanizing black bears, the town fines people who don’t bear-proof their trash bins.
Why are there so many coyotes in Laguna Beach? By choice, the city is surrounded by wild hillsides and canyons. Now there is a continuing drought and wild food is scarce. Just over the line the neighborhood landscape is green. Lawns and gardens are watered, fruit trees bear fruit. Birds sing in the bushes on warm days. Like other omnivores, coyotes are attracted to berries and downed fruit.
Trapping and killing can work only if the human-supported food sources are eliminated at the same time. Removing the coyote without eliminating the food encourages the production of more coyote pups to fill the available space and attracts wandering young coyotes looking for a territory. Coyote packs regulate their numbers to match available food, with some extra pups as backups. After leaving the den or nest, juvenile coyotes (and young of many species of furry critters and birds) explore into our neighborhoods. If they find food or water, they will return.
In Orange County, raccoons dig through lawns for grubs and slugs and strip lemons from trees; opossums steal eggs and fight over grapes; skunks tackle hot grills for bbq-chicken; Cooper’s hawks dive at bird feeders; house finches, bees, and moths decimate figs and loquats; night herons fish in ornamental ponds; and some unknown animal knocks over birdbaths.
If we feed wildlife, they will return!
Author Elisabeth Brown is a biologist and president of Laguna Greenbelt, Inc., which works to protect wildlife habitat in Orange County.