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Coyotes, at home on the range or the ski hills

By Jack Souther,

Whistler Naturalists

I didn't see it myself but my sharp-eyed partner, a few chairs ahead on the Solar Coaster, spotted the wily critter trucking up the 5-6 road. We were on our way to an early morning shift of Mountain Hosting and the coyote was obviously clearing out before the hordes of humans took over the slopes.

Sightings of coyotes on the local mountains are not unusual. A couple summers ago I watched one sitting brazenly beside the old marmot dens just above midstation on Blackcomb – the place where we used to see young marmots sunning themselves near the safety of their burrows.

Coyotes have been fingered as one reason for the decline in the local marmot population and they may, in fact, be implicated. But historically the scrawny little relative of the wolf has taken an unfair rap – accused of all manner of heinous acts that are far beyond its physical ability.

There is no denying that coyotes can and do kill domestic sheep and calves, and under favourable snow conditions they can bring down a deer. There are also a few documented accounts of attacks on children, almost always by animals that have become habituated to humans. As a result coyotes have, in many places, been the target of eradication programs: bounties, poison, aerial hunting, and even the deliberate introduction of disease such as mange. But coyotes have not only survived these misguided assaults but, during the last few decades, dramatically expanded their range.

Traditionally canis latrans (barking dog) occupied the open brushlands and prairies of the interior while its larger relative, the grey wolf, held dominion over the forests and mountains. Although coyotes were tempted to sneak the odd bite of an unguarded wolf-kill they were always vulnerable to being killed and eaten by their more powerful cousins. As a consequence there was very little overlap between wolf and coyote territories.

Ironically the success of decades of wolf control opened the door to coyotes. As wolf populations declined small game increased and, no longer threatened by resident wolves, the coyotes moved into once forbidden territory. Rapidly extending their range to the west and north, they are now found across Canada, with the exception of Vancouver Island, and from Alaska to Central America.

Intelligent, cunning, and infinitely adaptable, these little "brush wolves" have learned to eke out a living in habitats as diverse as the deserts of New Mexico, the ski slopes of Whistler, and the urban sprawl of Vancouver.

My respect for their tenacity goes back to my ranch days in the Alberta foothills where temperatures could plummet to 50 below, where the crack of a tree splitting in the cold would set off a chorus of yipping and howling – coyotes singing, and somehow surviving, on a night when everything but the northern lights had been stilled by the bitter cold. Next week I'll take a closer look at the lifestyle that has sustained the coyote through its ongoing persecution by both man and wolves.

Upcoming events:

Thursday, Feb. 27th, 7:30 p.m. at Millennium Place Dr. Neville Winchester: "The Last Unexplored Biotic Frontier: Science in the High Canopy of AncientRainforests." Dr. Winchester is the scientist who first discovered a huge variety of previously unknown insects in the canopies of old-growth trees in the Carmannah Valley. Neville will describe his discoveries in the Carmannah and other ancient rainforests, as well as the climbing methods he has pioneered. Suggested donation $7 ($5 for members); children free. Doors open at 7 p.m.

For more information on the Whistler Naturalists, contact Veronica Sommerville at: whistlernaturalists@canada.com

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