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Coyotes, Sharp Shooters and the Balance of Nature
Ranchng West of the 100th Meridian

On February 5th, Rocky Mountain National Park began their new culling program to thin the elk herd.  Sharpshooters will be used to thin about 100 animals from the Park's herds this year, which if allowed to overgraze might destroy many of the Park's aspens and willows.

That same day, in response to safety concerns when a 14-year-old had to fight off a coyote in the Denver metro area, the Greenwood Village City Council passed an ordinance allowing coyotes to be shot.  A contractor will be paid $60 per hour, or $200 per day, to cull the habituated coyote population.

More recently, a disoriented coyote was found huddling in a Chicago Starbuck's next to the drink cooler, perhaps the closest thing to a cave he could find.  More than ever before, we are being asked to explore what it means to co-exist - with one another, with the land, with the animals.

When the Louis and Clark Expedition first encountered a coyote, they called it the Prairie Wolf.  To many Native Americans, Coyote is known as the Trickster.  The coyote is both scavenger and hunter, opportunist and predator. 

In my essay of seasons on a small Wyoming ranch in the book Ranching West of the 100th Meridian (Island Press, 2002), I wrote these winter entries about coyotes:

January:  "Eighteen below zero when feeding the cows this morning, the air crisp and clear with four inches of fresh snow on the ground.  The Bear Lodge appears black and white, snow layered on the branches of the stark oak trees.  The cows' breath rise in vapors.  When I feed the horses, their long eyelashes are white with ice.  Coyote tracks, traveling fast, try to outrun the cold, but Winter has everywhere marked his territory.  Embrace me, or die trying, he seems to say.  Finally, he claims Romie, my beloved old mare of thirty years."

February:  "We visit the black Angus ranch of close friends.  A.R. shows us a Lakota horse stick he has made from a single-bitted ax handle. Three raptor claws hang, with feathers attached, as decoration.  The stick honors the Lakota tradition of honoring their war-horses, while ornately painted skulls speak to the transciency of the flesh.  He tells about rescuing a coyote from a trap (not his) that the animal had been dragging on one hind foot.  The trap became snagged on a barbed wire fence, painfully tethering the coyote.  A shovel kept the coyote's head pinned down while A.R. freed the animal's leg.  "I had a long talk with that coyote," he tells us with dry humor while holding the horse stick.  "I spun him around five times, then kicked him in the rear and said, ‘Go get the neighbor's sheep, but don't let me see your ass back here."

March:  "Snowshoeing today I find a coyote's den dug into the snowdrift up at the bone yard.  The coyote has started an early spring cleaning, kicking winter debris from the den.  The entrance is covered with deer hair, bones, teeth, and hide.  It is ten below zero; still, the land is my constant companion, my deepest yearning.  I am connected to the land in all ways, at all times-to the coyotes who flush white-tails from the forest, to the flick of my horse's ears as he listens to the coyotes, to the wind that lifts our scent and swirls it among the barren branches of the oaks."

And then this final winter entry:  "It's night.  My son stands on the deck and howls at the coyotes.  They howl back.  In the morning, a brazen coyote follows the cows and calves in off the hay meadow.  He is so brazen he doesn't run off when he sees Mark, just crouches in the grass and watches.  Matt howls again that night, warning him off.  We don't shoot the coyote, but we do claim the calving pasture.  The ridges and ponderosas and grasslands we share."

Now, it is not only the grasslands, but the parks, greenbelts, and watersheds that we humans must learn to share.  Ironically, at a time when many of us seek out the wilderness, the wilderness seems to be seeking out us.  We are reminded of the delicate balance between predator and prey, between grazer and grass, between the need to co-exist and the need to survive. 

Ask the coyote and she will tell you, perhaps with a glint in her eye, that she is a survivor. She will wait patiently with her brother the elk for government budgets to fall victim to the economic crisis.  "Sharp shooters laid off," the headlines might read.  And then what we will ask ourselves?