From Yellowstone Wildlife: A Watchers Guide 
by Todd Wilkinson.

Singing Trickster

Called the 'trickster' by Native Americans, coyotes (Canis latrans) are currently top dog in Yellowstone Park. Having survived the same extermination campaigns that eliminated wolves from the park between 1920 and 1930, coyotes have by default become the predominant canid predator, though their role in wild ecosystems is often overlooked. 

Intelligent and social animals, coyotes grow as large as a medium sized dog. Their fur color varies according to habitat, though in Yellowstone the majority of adults have grizzled gray coats with a whitish underbelly, bushy tail, and reddish hair on the front and back legs. On the average, coyotes weigh between 30 and 40 pounds, about half as much as a wolf. In telling the two species apart, it's helpful to remember that coyotes are comparatively dainty. Their noses, heads, legs, and feet are less prominent. Wolves have broader muzzles, massive heads, long legs and huge feet. 

The coyote is a rover, seeming always to be on the move. It's normal for small groups of coyotes to amble dozens of miles during a night of hunting. When in pursuit of a rabbit or rodent, they can sprint at speeds of 35 to 40 miles per hour. Like wolves, coyotes are pack animals that work together to bring down young deer, pronghorn, elk calves, or other winter weakened prey. 

An interesting behavioral trait, observed in Yellowstone, is that a coyote will accompany a badger. As the badger plows through the den of a ground squirrel or marmot, the coyote will opportunistically wait near secondary escape hatches. 

There are many ways to detect coyote presence. First, listen for howls, the famous sound of coyotes "singing." Scan the ground for coyote tracks. Because they walk on the toes of their paws, not on the flat bottoms of their feet, coyotes are considered digitigrade (toe walker). This is apparent, as each footprint has four toe marks and a heel mark behind. 

The management of coyotes in Yellowstone is unusual, simply because the predators are left alone to interact with the wildlife around them. Outside the park, coyotes are regarded as vermin by most cattle and sheep ranchers, who shoot them at will. Studies by Yellowstone researchers indicate that when coyotes are not hunted or killed artificially, their numbers stabilize and the population level generally remains the same year after year. In areas where humans routinely kill them, however, their survival tendency leads them to increase their reproduction of young, which may actually result in higher population densities. The exact number of coyotes in the park is not known, though they are far more abundant than red foxes. 

Habituation to human food is regarded as the greatest threat to coyotes, for animals that have been fed will aggressively confront people. Some encounters have been dangerous. In recent episodes, cross country skiers in the Old Faithful area were attacked by hungry coyotes who associated humans with food. Not only were the people bitten, but the coyotes were destroyed. 

For obvious reasons, then, you should never feed coyotes. The table scraps you leave behind could become a death sentence for a coyote or could result in injury to a human being.

Where to Find Coyotes

Although coyotes are nocturnal in areas where they're persecuted, they do not fear humans in Yellowstone, so they're active at all hours. Look for them year-round in the Lamar Valley; on the northern, inland shores of Yellowstone Lake; in the Upper and Lower geyser basins around Old Faithful; in Hayden Valley and across Blacktail Deer Plateau. Watch for them, too, when you're viewing herds of bison, elk, or pronghorns. 

During any season, coyotes can be spotted at Yellowstone roadsides. From the Lamar Valley to the south park entrance, and from Sylvan Pass to Mammoth Hot Springs, they are common to the middle and lower elevations. If you're driving, pull over, turn off your engine, and sit quietly for a while. Better yet, park and walk to a hilltop. Sit, watch and listen. 

The coyotes of Yellowstone are robust and heavily furred, which means they're often mistaken for wolves. Let a ranger know if you see what you believe may be a wolf. 

There are other vantages. Armed with binoculars or spotting scopes, nature photographers often stake out the Tower Falls area near Junction Butte, and the 7,841-foot Mt. Evers. In spring, look for sheep perched on ledges above the highway. Ewes frequently congregate there to lamb before leading their brood in a westward migration to the backcountry around Electric Peak. Continue to the next page, Elk.

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