Thursday, May 27, 2010

71,000 coyotes killed--what does this mean for birds?

Here is today's news report on the final tally of from the coyote slaughter:

"Coyote ugly: 71,000 killed in Sask cull

By The Canadian Press
REGINA - A coyote bounty Saskatchewan offered hunters and farmers has resulted in more than 71,000 of the animals being killed.

Agriculture Minister Bob Bjornerud says the number is a surprise, but he's pleased with the results.

Bjornerud says the intention was not to eliminate coyotes, but to control the population because the animals were killing livestock and putting farm families in danger.

Jack Hextall, chairman of the Saskatchewan Cattlemen's Association, says attacks on livestock were costing producers thousands of dollars in losses.

The province paid $20 per coyote under a pilot program which ran from November until the end of March.

Bjornerud says the final cost for the program should be about $1.5 million."

Leaving aside the financial and political stupidity of a government spending $1.5 million to solve a problem that was "costing producers thousands of dollars," I am going to speculate on what losing 71,000 coyotes might do in the short term to grassland ecosystems that are already under a lot of stress from habitat destruction and conversion.

71,000 is a big number when we are talking about a top predator. In a post on January 15, I wrote about the effect of removing a lot of coyotes--particularly how it releases the Red Fox, a non-native predator, from any limits on its numbers. Though the fox is native to the continent it was not found on grasslands before settlement and agriculture. In the last century the Red Fox has had some periods where it has exploded in numbers, usually after a large loss of coyotes, which otherwise keep it in check.
(See Finley J.K. 2006. The rise and fall of the Red Fox beneath the apex of Palliser’s Triangle. Blue Jay 64(3): 155 - 159 and Finley, J.K. 2005. The fox that stole the apex of Palliser’s Triangle: a correction. Blue Jay 63(3) : 135-138)

Grassland birds are not adapted to predators such as the Red Fox and Racoon so when these mammals increase bird populations suffer.

Here is an excerpt from a research paper about a declining grassland bird, the Greater Prairie Chicken, explaining how nest success in ground-nesting birds (ducks and the prairie chicken) is greater in areas with higher coyote populations. And wherever coyotes numbers are down and Red Fox numbers up, nest success is cut in half. The full paper is available on the National Prairie Wildlife Research Center's website

"Red foxes and skunks have been the most common mammalian predators of prairie-chicken nests throughout most of the eastern range. Foxes generally have more impact than skunks because they commonly prey on the nesting hen. Over a 10-yr period, Svedarsky (1988) found December fox fur prices to be positively correlated with spring booming-ground counts two springs later. The conclusion was that trapping effort increased with the market incentive and that other potential predators were trapped as well (skunks, feral cats [Felis domesticus]). If trapping (and hunting) did, in fact, reduce mammalian predator numbers, it should have resulted in higher prairie-chicken production the next year and higher booming-ground counts the following year. This appeared to be the case. Further evidence for the high impact of foxes on large ground-nesting birds is that in areas where coyotes tend to displace foxes, nest success often increases. In North Dakota and South Dakota, Sovada et al. (1995) studied comparable areas except that some areas were dominated by red foxes and others by coyotes. Duck nests in coyote-dominated areas experienced nearly twice (32%) the nesting success as those in fox-dominated areas (17%). The authors suggested that managing an area for coyotes rather than for foxes could be an effective method of increasing duck nest success. Svedarsky (1992) observed an increase in apparent nest success of larger ground-nesting birds (ducks and grouse) over a 2-yr period in Minnesota. As coyotes apparently displaced foxes, nest success increased from 8.3% of 12 nests to 61.3% of 31 nests."

The voices of coyotes are part of the twilight and morning song of the prairie--something we take for granted like the creek running in spring. Last weekend my wife Karen and I were remarking that we have heard very few coyotes calling this spring. Most nights now there are none to be heard. To be honest, at first I wasn't thinking it was the coyote slaughter. After all, the estimate was merely 21,000 or so--more or less the same as an average winter. 71,000 is a very different number, different enough to do some short term damage that contributes to the long term decline of prairie ecosystems.

Two weeks ago, I saw my first red fox on the land since we purchased it in 2005. It was in broad daylight. The next weekend I saw two foxes in the same spot, again running in the light of day.

Meanwhile, the surviving coyotes are nursing their litters right now. If you care for the wellbeing of this land, lift a prayer or thought in their direction, that they may prosper this summer and replace that lost 71,000 as soon as possible.


  1. Trevor: This sadden's me very much,I feel frozen as to know what I might do, to help with this situation. I just can't believe it has rolled along and the gov't is as cold as they are ,with no regard for our fellow creatures. Change will come, I have to believe...all the best Neil

  2. I feel depressed right now. I myself never really understood how predator animals actually create a healthy balanced eco-system. There is an article in National Geographic about the wolf, in the March issue. There is also a bounty on Wolves in the mid-west and the article demonstrated how the wolf presence in Yellow Stone National Park created a balanced and healthy eco-system that is in danger if the wolf in the mid-west is hunted down into small numbers. I am scared!

  3. I can't imagine why the government of a province which, according to the news we hear and read, has apparently been overrun with gophers the past several years would simultaneously place a bounty on coyotes.
    Not to mention the sheer lack of respect and fellow-feeling for other creatures and total lack of knowledge of natural history.


  4. Thanks for those thoughtful comments, Neil, Pamela and Ms Acoose. I too read that Nat. Geographic article and recommend it to anyone who would like to learn a bit about the role top predators play in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

    Fear and sadness are part of becoming aware of the destruction that is overtaking our grassland world, but there is always hope. In the rains this weekend, I led a group of 12 keen naturalists on a Birdathon to raise funds for bird research. The birds were there in good numbers--we recorded 116 species including several grassland birds, Baird's sparrows and Sprague's pipits, singing in the rain. We saw coyotes too, three of them, behaving like good, healthy coyotes: looking back at us across the mile between us, then turning tail and running to the horizon.

  5. Trevor,
    Thanks for this article.
    I was out of the country and I wonder what the environmental activists/orgnizations strategies were to respond to this?
    I think that the Agriculture Minister should mandate that farmers have herd guard dogs, such as the effective Turkish Akbash, before allowing any more "culls" of wild animals. 71,ooo killed coyotes is outrageous.....

  6. Vivian:

    Nature Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Environmental Society did respond both in the press and in meetings with government officials, expressing our dismay and strong opposition to the bounty. In late winter, the provincial government began to receive some negative press over the issue and evetntually discontinued the bounty. By then the damage was done as we now find out.

    Thanks for writing,

  7. While there sre still coyotes around, I found it interesting last week to see a couple of red foxes close to the farm yard. I had not seen even one on the home quarter in the last ten years!


  8. Yep, I know what you mean. We may never know what this bounty is doing for a non-native meso-predator like the Red Fox--but when you see them suddenly in places where you had not seen them in years, you start to wonder.

    Thanks for the comment.

  9. Hi Trevor

    I would simply say that the 71,000 coyote slaughter is an example of ecofacism. It has parallels to ethnic cleansing in the events leading up to the coyote genocide.

  10. Hi Trevor,

    It was great to have you Skype in at our book club yesterday! I've now subscribed to your blog, and was searching for exactly this article after you mentioned it yesterday evening.

    I find it interesting because we had the same situation in the 1980's in the Yukon. Except that it was with wolves and the government actually hired biologists to completely cull wolf populations in parts of the Yukon hoping to increase moose populations.

    My friend, Bob Hayes, was one of those biologists and although he felt guilty, he went ahead with the work. Surprisingly, by doing populations studies at same time, they found that the culling, after a few years, produced absolutely no decrease in population. There would always be another breeding pair filling the vacant territory, and the wolf litters would increase to accommodate the diminished numbers.

    That being said, they stopped the program when they realized it was just a waste of money. Bob has just published a book about his 18 years experience as a wolf biologist: Wolves of the Yukon.

    I wonder if the same situation exists for the coyotes and the culling is completely unnecessary?

  11. Thanks Kyla--it was wonderful meeting you and the others over Skype last night. As you say, top predator culls are almost always a waste of money. 71,000 coyotes cannot be replaced in a single year but my guess is that within five to ten years the numbers will recover--perhaps even sooner. You may know that a species like the coyote adjusts its litter size in response to food availablitiy and competition. There are pressures to cull wolves here in Saskatchewan too, but so far the authorities have stood their ground. There are times where an individual wolf or coyote has to be shot, but killing predators in broad-based culls introduces a level of social disorder within and among their clans that in the long run may lead to more of the very predator behaviours we are trying to prevent. I will keep an eye out for Bob's book. Thanks for writing.

  12. i am saddened to hear of such things happening next provence from mine.
    a game warden in virden MB told me a couple of years ago that he has yet to see a coyote kill a healthy calf, he believes all they do is clean up the dead ones.
    now how long will it be before sask. farmers need deadly poison to do the work the coyotes were doing for free
    but remember this is sask. we are talking about, a place where if on welfare the dog catcher can go to your home remove all your dogs and kill them before you get home.
    this is also the only provence in canada the a (oh never mind)
    but one this is true, we had a fishing trip planed for northern sask this summer, it will now NEVER happen..


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