Even with a bounty on their heads to protect mule deer, coyotes hard to count out

May 1 2013 - 6:16am

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Troy Davis, from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, takes samples from the coyotes brought in during the coyote check-in at the Ogden DWR office last week. Hunters and trappers brought in everything from ears and jaws to fully tanned hides. They are paid $50 per coyote in an effort to protect mule deer populations. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Troy Davis, from the Utah DWR, removes a tooth from a coyote brought in during the predator-control program check-in at the Ogden DWR office on Thursday, April 25, 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Troy Davis, from the Utah DWR, removes a tooth from a coyote brought in during the predator-control program check-in at the Ogden DWR office on Thursday, April 25, 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Arlo Wing, right,removes a sample from a coyote's ear that will be used for genetic testing while Troy Davis removes a tooth to be used for aging the coyotes during the the coyote check-in at the Ogden DWR office on Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Troy Davis (left) and Arlo Wing (right), from the Utah DWR examiner a coyote head brought in by Austin Atkinson during the predator-control program check-in at the Ogden DWR office on Thursday, April 25, 2013. Atkinson brought in the heads of three coyotes he had shot over the last month. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Coyote ears, jaws and heads sit outside the offices at the Ogden DWR headquarters on Thursday, April 25, 2013, during the monthly check-in for the predator-control program. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Arlo Wing (left) and Troy Davis, from the Utah DWR, sort the jaws and ears of 21 coyotes during the the coyote check-in at the Ogden DWR office on Thursday, April 25, 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Troy Davis, from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, takes samples from the coyotes brought in during the coyote check-in at the Ogden DWR office last week. Hunters and trappers brought in everything from ears and jaws to fully tanned hides. They are paid $50 per coyote in an effort to protect mule deer populations. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Troy Davis, from the Utah DWR, removes a tooth from a coyote brought in during the predator-control program check-in at the Ogden DWR office on Thursday, April 25, 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Troy Davis, from the Utah DWR, removes a tooth from a coyote brought in during the predator-control program check-in at the Ogden DWR office on Thursday, April 25, 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Arlo Wing, right,removes a sample from a coyote's ear that will be used for genetic testing while Troy Davis removes a tooth to be used for aging the coyotes during the the coyote check-in at the Ogden DWR office on Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Troy Davis (left) and Arlo Wing (right), from the Utah DWR examiner a coyote head brought in by Austin Atkinson during the predator-control program check-in at the Ogden DWR office on Thursday, April 25, 2013. Atkinson brought in the heads of three coyotes he had shot over the last month. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Coyote ears, jaws and heads sit outside the offices at the Ogden DWR headquarters on Thursday, April 25, 2013, during the monthly check-in for the predator-control program. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Arlo Wing (left) and Troy Davis, from the Utah DWR, sort the jaws and ears of 21 coyotes during the the coyote check-in at the Ogden DWR office on Thursday, April 25, 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

Leaning against the bed of the pickup truck at the Division of Wildlife Resources offices, Austin Atkinson hands over two coyote heads and one body.

"Any hunter that doesn't shoot coyotes isn't a very good hunter, in my opinion," Atkinson said.

Atkinson, an avid hunter from Logan, had brought in the coyotes to collect his $150 bounty through Utah's Mule Deer Protection Act. As the name suggests, the program is designed to preserve mule deer populations by paying a $50 bounty for coyotes that might otherwise kill mule deer fawns.

As trappers come to collect their bounty, Arlo Wing and Troy Davis are perched around the tailgate of the DWR truck that serves as a temporary work station.

Wing, a wildlife specialist, cuts a coin-sized chunk out of the coyote ears while Davis, a biological technician from Salt Lake, removes the pre-molar.

With the genetic material from the ear and the signs of age on the tooth, biologists hope to create a better picture of what coyotes are out there and see what effect hunting and trapping has on their numbers.

The impact of a bounty hunt is difficult to determine.

The mule deer population in Utah is relatively stable at around 320,000 animals. There is no season on coyotes and no legal limit on the number that can be killed.

However, when predator-control programs were rampant in the United States in the early 20th century and wolf and bear populations were decimated, coyote numbers were largely unaffected. In fact, coyotes have adapted to human interactions better than almost any predator.

"Coyotes are flexible in their behavior and foraging," said Dr. Julie Young, who studies coyotes with the National Wildlife Research Center. "They'll eat anything from fruit to large ungulates (animals with hooves)."

Davis recalled stories of coyotes eating out of watermelon fields in Alabama and living in New York City's Central Park. He described them as the "ultimate underdog."

Just a few second later, he backtracked.

"I guess they can't be the underdog if they're always winning," Davis said.

A large part of the success of coyotes is their ability to learn quickly when it comes to avoiding humans.

This skill also makes them nearly impossible to count. A 1999 study estimated the number of coyotes in the U.S. anywhere between 0.2 and 2.3 per square kilometer depending on the region.

In Utah, that comes out to between 44,000 and a half-million coyotes. But Dr. John Shivik, the mammal program coordinator with DWR, emphasizes that any numbers are simply "back of the envelope" estimates.

During a recent check-in at the Ogden DWR office, trappers and hunters brought in 50 scalps in just less than two hours. On its own, this can seem like a huge number of animals, especially when you consider there were another 26 check-ins around the state in April alone.

With a $500,000 budget per year, the DWR has enough money to pay the bounty on 10,000 coyotes. From the start of the bounty program last July through the last total count April 1, hunters and trappers have brought in 6,151 scalps.

However, by many accounts, this loss has a relatively small impact on the long-term coyote population.

"Ten-thousand isn't even a blip in their numbers," Shivik said.

By his and other biologists' estimate, hunters would have to bring down the numbers of coyotes by 50 to 70 percent per year for an extended period of time to permanently decrease the population.

In 2000, biologists from Utah State University in Logan studied a smaller bounty program in several counties around the state. At the time, the scalps brought in for check-in amounted to approximately just 1 percent of the total coyote numbers.

Even if the 70 percent threshold were reached, it still wouldn't guarantee a healthy deer population. As the DWR points out in its predator-control training, a decrease in coyotes still means that fawns could die because of lack of habitat or extreme weather.

Likewise, the loss of predators can lead to overpopulation and ecological damage by the animals that used to be their prey.

That brings it all back to the envelopes of teeth and ear clippings sitting in the back of a pickup truck. With the data from the bounty check-ins, DWR hopes to expand its knowledge of coyotes in Utah and create a program that can be even more effective at controlling wildlife numbers in the future.

When asked about the effectiveness of the Mule Deer Protection Act, Shivik had a simple but open-ended answer: "Ask me again in three years."

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