The sound of a coyote (Canis latrans) is enough to stop anyone in their tracks. And on the prairie, gauging their location can be deceiving. As their piercing voices echo across the rolling hills and coulees, it is hard to know if they are just yards away, a half mile down the creek or on a ridge several miles away. Those educated in their ways can pick up on a secret conversation through their series of yips, howls and barks. Any way that you perceive this creature, you are always amazed by their overwhelming presence, quick-wittedness and tenacity to survive in a land where they are despised.
I learned quickly as a newcomer to the region that the coyote (two syllables, not three, in these parts) is a source of much anxiety. They are blamed for livestock losses, a perceived declining deer population, domestic pet disappearances, and game bird predation. They are the focus of mid-winter predator hunts and government trapping programs and yet they continue to thrive in the region. This is due in part to sheer vastness of the terrain that they inhabit as well as their breeding patterns which seem to kick into overdrive when the population is put under pressure.
Coyotes are typically found traveling alone or in pairs in the Northern Plains region. Occasionally they will travel in larger packs. (Take, for example, the day last fall when I happened to look out the window and see three pups playing with a rabbit about 100 yards from the house. Frightening to see them so close to the farmstead, but fascinating nonetheless.) Their range is widespread and they can be found almost anywhere in the United States in the present day. They seem to be more adaptable than their wolf cousins and have learned to survive in highly urban areas as well as their natural wildland range. On the prairie, they are the dominant carnivore and will stay in that position although the expanding range of mountain lions and wolves will likely cause a decline in population.
This much reviled creature is a cornerstone of life on the prairie. Although we would never admit (publicly) that we get joy out of their presence, to hear a rancher talk about the coyotes he heard makes you believe that they add at least a little zest to life. When my husband and I heard a coyote light up the summer night with a series of howls from what seemed to be just behind our house, we bolted for the door to hear more. The sound they create sends chills of loneliness down your spine and touches something from our wild nature. But just as we are frightened by the sound and frustrated with their impact on our ranching economy, we would be lonely if their presence were permanently eliminated from the landscape. And so the battle will rage on and no one will emerge victorious – but our evenings will remain a little richer, a little more memorable when a howl reverberates across the prairie.