It seems an elegant solution to the rising number of complaints about coyotes in Minnesota: Bring back the bounty.

A new law to revive an old practice -- allowing county governments to put a price on a pair of furry ears or a tail -- is cruising through the Legislature and is deemed likely to pass.

But wildlife experts say that, at best, a new bounty would be an expensive exercise in futility, for the wily coyote has been recognized throughout history as one of the most prolific and adaptable of all wild critters. Almost as adaptable, it seems, as humans.

"The reason we stopped doing it [in 1965] is because it wasn't all that effective," said John Stark, a wildlife biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Naturalists say that about 70 percent of the state's coyotes would have to be killed to make a long-term impact on their population. That would require a rich bounty, perhaps as much as $100 each, to motivate enough coyote hunters. At that price, people are likely to cheat by claiming a bounty for animals killed outside a county's limits.

Besides, experts say, the highly adaptable coyotes would just come back anyway.

"It's very hard to reduce their numbers," said David Mech, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Service and the University of Minnesota. The federal government and Western states spend millions of dollars on the effort, he said, and have yet to succeed.

None of this discourages Sen. Gary Kubly. The Granite Falls DFLer said this is the fourth or fifth time he's introduced the bounty bill at the urging of the county governments in his district.

"The first time I tried this, it didn't get out of the environmental committee," he said. "Last year some of the people who spoke against it before were in favor because coyotes are in the suburbs."

Last year the bill passed, but was vetoed as part a larger bill by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Kubly recognizes that a bounty would have only limited effect on coyote numbers, but he thinks it might help some farmers who lose lambs, chickens and even calves to the predators.

Coyotes vs. dogs

Janet McNalley is doubtful. She pastures a flock of about 200 sheep at her farm, Tamarack Lamb and Wool, near Hinckley, Minn. Years ago, after she lost 75 lambs to wolves in one year, she started using specially bred, 100-pound guard dogs to protect the flock. Her 10 dogs do a fine job of protecting the sheep from wolves, she said. But coyotes have been their undoing.

The dogs wear GPS collars so she can track them at night. About two years ago, a pack of coyotes moved in and started tormenting the dogs. The dogs would do their job and chase them away. Then the coyotes would come back, and the game would start all over again.

"It would go on for several hours," she said. First they drew the dogs toward the east, until a neighbor complained. She used shock collars to stop the dogs from going in that direction. But then the coyotes came in from the west. They enticed the dogs farther and farther away, until in the space of two days three of her toughest, most protective dogs were struck by vehicles and killed on the exact same spot on Interstate 35.

"I was dumbfounded," she said. "I have never in all these years seen coyotes act in such a clever and determined way.

"We did end up shooting those coyotes," she added.

McNalley thinks coyotes have since lost their respect for dogs. But a bounty?

"They would have to take an awful lot of coyotes and it would have to be an awfully good bounty to make a difference," she said.

Urban coyote

Biologists say McNalley's solution -- eliminating a pack of troublesome coyotes -- is still the most effective way to reduce conflicts. And Minnesotans can hunt or trap coyotes at any time of the year.

Minnesota outlawed bounties for both wolves and coyotes in 1965. At the time, wolf numbers were at their lowest point preceding the animal's listing as an endangered species. Coyotes, however, were relatively abundant then, and their numbers have risen steadily ever since.

Coyotes have surprised biologists and animal control officers everywhere with their remarkable ability to thrive in the shadows of suburban and even urban communities. Once called "ghosts of the plains," now they are "ghosts of the cities."

In fact, DNR officials say, most of today's coyote complaints come from metropolitan areas, where the chances that a county would authorize a bounty are remote.

"Coyotes have learned to adapt to urban life," said DNR biologist John Erb, "like in Minneapolis where there are lots of green spaces. They hang around a yard or kill a housecat."

Still, the number of complaints and problems are remarkably few, experts say, especially given the numbers of coyotes that live largely unseen in urban neighborhoods.

A researcher who has been following 200 radio-collared coyotes in the Chicago area for a decade has found that their conflicts with humans and pets are rare. They do sometimes eat cats or small dogs that are outside alone away from their owners. Problems occur primarily when people leave dog food or garbage out in their yards, experts say.

But nationwide, reports of coyotes biting humans are exceedingly rare.

The Chicago researchers found that the animals really are ghosts of the city. They sleep by day, often within a few feet of busy roads or sidewalks, and hunt by night. They survive primarily on mice and other rodents, garbage, goose eggs and deer, and perform an important role in keeping those urban animal populations under control.

"Coyotes are one of those tricky critters," said Erb. "If they have a food source, they can figure out the rest."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394