City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

September 21, 2016

September 7th

Filed under: Coyote, Mammals, Mule Deer, People — canopus56 @ 12:59 am

Coyote Friend

6:30 p.m. While jogging near mile 0.4, I hear something moving in the brush. I freeze and remain silent. Across the stream, small female coyote is noisily picking its way through the brush and towards the stream. She cannot see me because the stream is several feet below the roadbed and its view of me is blocked by the bank. She did not hear me because the coyote itself was making so much noise walking across dry leaves. This is the closest that I’ve been to a coyote in my life. Usually they are seen several hundred feet away crossing an open meadow.

The coyote spends a couple of minutes drinking at the stream. She finishes and then works her way back up the opposite bank. I make a small noise, she stops, and turns around to look me over. The coyote has large erect black fringed ears that stick out perpendicular from its narrow head. The snout is also narrow and has a delicate yellow side coloring. The eyes are bright deep yellow. Beneath the jaws, the neck hair has a subtle yellow black molted pattern that I do not see in photographs of other coyotes. In her eyes I see canine intelligence. It is the same dog intelligence that I see in the eyes of a friend’s domestic border collie. She betrays no fear or aggression, other than a few raised hairs on her back. She is relaxed and sniffs the surrounding leaves while keeping one eye on me. We both get bored of this game after a minute or so, and we go our separate ways. I wonder how many times in the past she has sat quiet and unseen in the brush watching myself and other joggers go by.

Coyote are a predator of mule deers. They principally take deer fawns, and studies indicate that coyote predate between 9% to 50% of annual deer births. However science has been unable to determine whether their predation significantly impacts the deer population. This is because of the confounding effect of compensatory versus additive predation. In compensatory predation, the coyotes take deer fawns that would have died from from other natural causes. In additive depredation, the coyote takes a fawn that would have survived those other natural causes of mortality.

Utah Division of Wildlife does not regulate the taking of coyotes because they are not classified as a “beneficial” species. In addition, the Utah Legislature funds the Division’s program that pays a $50 bounty for taking a coyote, and each year about 7,000 hunters claim the reward. Another $140,000 is set aside for contract hunters who take another 260 coyotes at an average cost of about $600 each. A Wildlife Division map indicates that three or four coyotes have been taken in City Creek Canyon between 2007 and 2014. The program is designed to make more deer available for the annual deer hunt, but the scientific basis for this practice is open to question. It is common sense that coyotes take immature deer, but even though Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado all fund similar coyote removal programs, the national decline of deer population continues in both states that have and do not have removal programs. This suggests that the decline of the mule deer population is related to loss of habitat or climate change and not to the coyote. Mathematical biology for managing wildlife populations is a complex topic, and due to the uncertainty in measuring populations, is an inexact science.

The role of natural predators is also a matter of perspective. By 1900, unrestricted hunting had reduced pre-colonial deer populations in the United States from about 40 million down to about 5 million individuals. Through management by 2000, the national deer population was restored to its pre-colonial level. Since then national deer populations have been on a steady but slow decline. In Utah, the mule deer population peaked in 1992 at about 350,000 individuals and since the severe winter of 1993, the population has fluctuated between about 275,000 and 325,000 individuals.

My own uninformed impression is that the primary predator of Utah mule deer is the SUV, and that this mangy, malnourished coyote in City Creek Canyon is being given more credit by hunters than is warranted.

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