Volume 12, Issue 48 ~ November 25 - December 1, 2004
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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton


The Quintessential Western Critter Has Staked a Claim on Chesapeake Country

Coyotes are wily, they are tricksters, and they are a potential threat to your small pets. In Maryland they can be found statewide — in every county.

In 1972, the first coyotes were recorded in central Maryland. Though preferring our western counties, they have since made their way slowly east by southeast.

"We got ’em” says Dwight Williams, director of Calvert County Department of Natural Resources. Last spring, in the Parkers Creek area, he saw a coyote shot by a turkey hunter. The unfortunate critter was checking out a decoy turkey when it was shot. Because coyotes are classified as invasive exotic wildlife, they are fair game to hunters.

In many ways, these Westerners are like the other local wild canids, our red and gray foxes. All prey on the same kinds of species: small mammals and ground birds. Coyotes seem to have some competitive advantages, however, and that is not good for the foxes. A basic rule of ecology, called the Competitive Exclusion Principle, is that if two or more species compete for the same resources, eventually one species will drive out the other.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources anticipates that coyotes will eventually wipe out most of the red foxes, but their effect on gray foxes will not be quite so bad. That is probably because coyotes and red foxes compete directly for upland habitat, while the grays are relegated to the swampy lowlands where they seem to have some advantages.

Do coyotes really dine on house cats and small dogs? Coyote populations in eastern Maryland are too spotty for the wild dogs to be a major threat. In reality, free-ranging dogs and cats are more likely to be killed by auto traffic. However, so as not to attract coyotes, some precautions should be observed, especially if you live in the country. Pet food should not be left outside, and crawl spaces under buildings should be enclosed.

Eventually feral cat populations, which have increased in recent years, might be reduced by invading coyotes. White-tailed deer, another species on the rise, probably won’t be affected, according to Maryland Natural Resources.

Eastern coyotes are different from the western breed. Genetically, they have been found to be part wolf. Their significantly larger size bears out this lineage. It is suspected that the coyotes made their way east via a northern route, breeding with wolves in Minnesota or Canada along the way.

I believe I have seen them myself, once in West Virginia and once in Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware. My tongue-in-cheek illustration is not to suggest that the varmints have reached the state capital yet; after all, the legislature does not meet until January.

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