Some years ago, I was hunting deer in the far northwest corner of the state, near Hallock, a burg that today lists fewer than 1,000 people among its residents.
Named for Charles Hallock, a New York writer, sportsman and a founder of Forest and Stream magazine (later, Field & Stream), the area in Kittson County that would become Hallock was believed to be unrivaled in its opportunities for elk, moose and deer hunting.
Morning had come and gone that day while I was in the area, and I had climbed down from my tree stand to wander around for a while, hoping something good might happen.
Which is when I came across a coyote in a leghold trap. The animal appeared to have been there for days. Trying to pull free, he had worn a depression in the ground. Attempting to escape, he had also chewed his immobilized leg. Now, lying down and quiet, he seemed resigned to his fate.
Plopping onto a tree stump a short distance away, I pulled a sandwich from my pack and passed the time, the coyote contemplating me, and I, him.
I recalled this incident recently while reading the book, “Coyote America,” by Dan Flores. A friend, Larry Thomforde of Zumbrota, Minn., had sent it to me.
Flores’ account of the coyote, or prairie wolf as it was known to Lewis and Clark and other early white explorers and settlers, underscores the coyote’s indefatigable survival instincts, and the equally untiring efforts by humans to kill it.
Those eradication attempts, or vestiges thereof, continue today. Yet, in many parts of the nation, coyotes are as plentiful as ever, or more so.
In fact, as Flores points out, the coyote has accommodated the nation’s urbanization by, in many instances, morphing from prairie (and woodland) animal to city dweller. Some 5,000 coyotes are believed to inhabit Los Angeles, where they tend to live longer than their rural counterparts. Similarly, though largely unseen, a thousand or more coyotes likely inhabit the greater Twin Cities, and thousands more live in or near Chicago, where at times for food they munch on Canada geese that prowl the city’s lakeshore.
That any coyotes are alive anywhere in North America is a credit to their “continuous behavioral improvisation,” as the writer Mike Davis describes it in Flores’ book.
Americans who pushed west in the 1800s didn’t know what to make of coyotes. Wolves by then were predators of legend and in many quarters, feared. The smaller coyote, though obviously a predator, seemed less threatening and in fact was known to scamper through campsites seeking tidbits and morsels.
It wasn’t until buffalo were eradicated from the plains and, in their absence, farmers and ranchers broke ground to raise crops and livestock that the coyote’s bad-guy image solidified. Beef calves were vulnerable to these marauders, and sheep even more so.
Mark Twain’s bestselling “Roughing It,” published in 1872, fanned the nation’s anti-coyote fervor, Flores says. “The cayote is a long, slim, sick, and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray-wolf skin stretched over it,” Twain wrote, adding, “the meanest creatures despise him, and even fleas would desert him.”
By the 1850s, the killer chemical strychnine, made from the seed of an East India fruit, was widely available, and travelers west would sometimes toss a tiny amount onto a dead horse or bison and wait for unsuspecting coyotes to feast on the carcasses. Dying shortly thereafter from “wrenching, convulsive cramping — a truly shocking sight,” the coyotes would be skinned and their pelts sold, traded or used for clothing.
In time, hoping to wipe out coyotes, or at least control their numbers, states would offer bounties for their pelts. The federal government joined the fight in 1914 when it awarded $125,000 for use “on the national forests and the public domain in destroying wolves, coyotes and other animals injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry.”
A new poison, thallium sulfate, was added to government’s anti-coyote campaign in the early 1900s, and by one estimate, between 1915 and 1947 nearly 2 million coyotes had been killed by state and federal fiat — with another 3 million carpet-bombed in the next 25 years.
A turning point came at the hand of an unlikely coyote advocate: President Richard Nixon. The environmental movement that began in the 1960s set the stage for Nixon to make a remarkable speech in 1972 in which he said even the least among wild things possesses “a right to exist — not granted to them by man, and not his to take away ... I am today barring the use of poisons for predator control on all public lands.”
Today, for good reason, livestock producers are among those who still want coyotes killed. Some game managers do, too, because coyotes dispatch a lot of deer fawns. City dwellers who have lost pets to coyotes also wish them a part of history.
In response, some state and federal agencies still target coyotes, though more strategically than in the past.
At the end of his book, Flores points out that coyotes have survived not only history’s most intensive poisoning campaigns, but two “epic climate swings, one the demise of deep, cold and wet, the other the peak of hot and dry.”
So perhaps, he says, it would be a good idea to pay attention to the coyote’s adaptive capacities as humans face “what from all best indications looks to be a noir future, a daunting challenge environmentally and ecologically.”
And what about that coyote ensnared years ago in a leghold trap near Hallock?
He caught a break, and soon enough was on his way.