From the pages of
The Sublette County Journal
Volume 4, Number 15 - 12/9/99
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

The Cunning Coyote
Locals talk about Sublette County's most clever animal
by DeeAnn Price

Imagine an animal that is smart enough to play dead, wait for a crow to investigate the corpse, and jump up just in the nick of time to grab the bird for a quick meal. The wily Coyote has always had a reputation for cleverness and survival, so I was anxious to learn what our local people, those whose work brings them in direct contact with the coyote in its natural habitat, had to say about their experiences with the coyote. What emerges is a picture of an animal uniquely adapted to survive in any climate or situation.

The cunning of the coyote begins at a very young age, says Don Calhoun, a drift rider for the Upper Green River Cattlemen's Association. Coyote parents have been known to move an entire den of pups if they catch even the slightest hint that the den may have been discovered. Former government trapper Tom Astle agrees, noting that adult coyotes often use the exact tracks every time they go into and out of the den, in order to minimize the appearance of a den. Mr. Astle adds that if a coyote pup becomes sick, the parents will care for the pup away from the rest of the litter, apparently to keep the illness from spreading to the rest of the brood.

The coyote is also an opportunistic feeder, often teaming up with other coyotes and even other species when need arises. Pinedale Game Warden Duke Early mentions that coyotes and badgers sometimes work for dinner together. My husband, Charles, once saw a coyote and badger traveling together. When the badger started digging into a squirrel mound, the coyote lay down nearby waiting for something to happen. Unfortunately, Charles didn't get to see any squirrels excavated, and the coyote missed out on an easy meal.

In addition to being a mooch, the coyote is a well-known thief among the otter populations. Duke says the coyotes will wait for an otter to catch a fish, and when the unsuspecting diner brings his meal to the surface, the coyote is ready and waiting to grab the fish and run. Mr. Calhoun notes a coyote will also watch the skies, and the ravens, for a sign there is a dead or dying animal to be found nearby.

Coyotes are formidable hunters when they can work in pairs or packs. "We were at Green River Lakes baiting some elk down to the feed ground," Duke Early said. There was a pack of 12 coyotes, and though elk don't usually pay much attention to coyotes, this time they were circled up and on the defensive. Some of the pack bluff - charged until they got one elk off by itself into the deeper snow. Then they harassed it until they got it down. When a herd of the elk moved back up into the timber there were six coyotes waiting along the trail ready to take advantage of the right opportunity. Both Don Calhoun and Todd Sterns have seen elk killed by coyotes on the feed grounds, and Tom Astle has trailed pairs of coyotes that have been successful in killing elk and moose. When one coyote got tired it rested while the other one kept the prey moving. The end was inevitable.

Mr. Astle remembered that when he and Bucky were trapping bobcats on Fremont Lake by the Narrows, they found that the coyotes had separated a calf elk from its herd and run it out on the ice, rendering the animal completely helpless, before moving in for the kill.

My husband and I have witnessed the aftermath of a coyote taking advantage of the situation when a hoofed animal takes to the ice. About three years ago we had a dry but cold winter and the deer were depending on the water holes Charles was chopping out for the cows. Day after day, there was evidence of deer being killed on the ice as they came to water, the coyote attacking when the deer is most vulnerable.

Bucky Neely tried trapping coyotes for a while and found it to be quite difficult. "They can see where you made a track last month" he quipped. He would wear gloves, boil the traps, and carry them in tubs of sagebrush, but the coyotes would still uncover his traps and defecate on the pan. "I used to lay awake nights trying to outsmart this one or that one," Bucky recalls with a smile. Tom Astle said that a coyote may start three or four feet away from a buried trap, working slowly and carefully to uncover it. As soon as just a bit of the trap or the chain is visible, the coyote takes off. Sometimes the animals would simply leave the trail 10 feet before reaching a trap, giving the contraption a wide berth, and rejoin the trail when the coast was clear. In order to try and distract a coyote, Bucky would tie something in a tree near the trap with the hope that a momentary lapse in concentration would result in one more $100 pelt.

Doug London, who traps problem animals for landowners, sometimes lightens the tension on his traps so that when the coyote scrapes its claws across the pan, he can catch it by the toes. He makes his own lures from beaver castor, coyote glands, whatever will pique their curiosity. During Tom's trapping days he sometimes fastened a drag to his trap instead of securing it with a ground stake. The drag weighed several pounds, was made of half-inch steel, and curved out on each end in order to catch the brush and prevent the coyote from getting away. Tom remarked that Orin Robinson once saw a coyote pick up such a drag in its teeth and keep on moving.

Another popular way to try and acquire a coyote skin was by running them down with a snow machine in the winter, a method Bucky had good luck with. He and Lucy were each chasing a coyote at Cow Creek in the Miller Sections. Lucy's coyote was running along the creek when it suddenly disappeared. The snow was hard enough to hide the tracks of the light weight animal, but after a careful search they found where the coyote had dived right through a hole in the snow. He was under the water with just his nose poking out.

Allen Stout uses a Super Cub airplane to run down coyotes. His gunner has been with him for 15 or 16 years and uses a sawed off shotgun to shoot them from 50 to 60 feet above the ground. Allen says he would hate to train another gunner because it takes so much experience to kill coyotes from a plane. Coyotes can run at speeds of 45 miles per hour, so he has to lead them about 20 feet. If he misses after two or three passes, they're gone. He knows of some coyotes that are smart enough to lay under the brush as soon as they hear the sound of the plane. He recalls one that had its tail shot off. "Bobtail" evaded them for three years by ducking into badger holes. When they finally got him out on the ice one day, they almost felt bad because the coyote had been such a worthy opponent.

Since coyotes first earned a reputation for killing livestock, they have been victims of poison, bounty systems, shooting and trapping, yet they continue to expand their range. When Doug London first began trapping in 1985, coyotes could not be found in his home state of Pennsylvania. They are there now. Duke Early agreed that they have spread to the East Coast and in places where they were either eradicated, or have never before existed as a native species.

The coyote has evolved into a highly adaptable, smart, and tough animal. By relying on their keen sense of smell and surroundings, and having the apparent ability to constantly change their behavior to suit the situation, it is easy to understand why the Native Americans held the trickster in such high regard.

See The Archives for past articles.

Copyright © 1999 The Sublette County Journal
All rights reserved. Reproduction by any means must have permission of the Publisher.
The Sublette County Journal, PO Box 3010, Pinedale, WY 82941   Phone 307-367-3713
Publisher/Editor: Rob Shaul