ORONO — A few weeks ago, I was walking the bike path at the University of Maine near sunset when I heard a man shout,
“There he is. Do you see him?”
Then a muffled reply, “Yes.”
Soon, the same loud voice was behind me.
“Hey, lady, there’s a rabid coyote about to cross in front of you!” The man jogged to catch up with me, a large, older female yellow Lab in tow.
“How do you know the coyote’s rabid?” I asked.
Breathing heavily, he replied, “Coyotes run in packs, this one’s alone. They don’t come out in the daylight. And he was scruffy-looking.”
“Coyotes around here do hunt alone, in twos, sometimes more,” I said. “It’s been a hard winter; many mammals are looking scruffy — but that doesn’t mean the coyote’s rabid!”
Nonetheless the man claimed that he was going to “take care” of the “rabid coyote.“
“If you have a firearm, it’s illegal to discharge it here. Even for a coyote,” I hollered as he jogged off.
“My dog will take care of him!” he replied over his shoulder.
“You’re going to sic that dog on what you claim is a rabid animal?! I think you should reconsider!” But he was probably too far ahead to hear.
I contemplated the stranger’s hatred of coyotes. Certainly he is not alone. The popular dogma surrounding them is akin to religious extremism’s fervor; in this case coyote is the devil. People who don’t see eye to eye with popularized, albeit often flawed beliefs are heretics, and it’s an all-out war to eradicate this relative newcomer from the landscape.
For me it’s not as simple as good versus evil, right versus wrong. Coyotes, like humans, are omnivores, consuming a wide variety of foods. Also like humans, as predators, they kill deer.
Yet, when they do, they are not the only ones to benefit. A partial list of species that feed opportunistically off a deer carcass includes bobcat, lynx, fisher, mink, marten, weasel, eagles, vultures, ravens, crows, blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, red, gray and flying
squirrels, hare, raccoons and skunks. (For those who think it fine to put out poisoned meat for the coyote, these same species, sometimes along with domestic animals, die when they, also hungry, consume it.)
In a very bad winter, when many deer perish from starvation, or are more easily killed by predators, their sacrifice provides renewed life to animals who otherwise might starve as well. In this context, the edible portions of a deer are put to better use than many of those harvested by humans.
People who assert that coyotes are all bad also argue that they don’t belong in Maine. Yet this is based on a values-driven argument that ignores biological principles. The reality is that the distribution of wildlife populations is not set in stone nor entirely under the control
of humans. Over many millennia, species have come and gone, primarily as environmental conditions change, and as a result of the dynamics of relationships among the species — including humans — that inhabit a given area.
A fairly recent, and in this context ironic, example occurred after Europeans settled Maine and started cutting its forests. Before that, white-tailed deer were not present in most counties. The cutting created a corridor for their expansion north and eastward, and they ranged into regions that have proved extremely hostile to such delicately rendered mammals.
Densities of deer have fluctuated wildly since then. As the crucial cedar in more and more deer yards is harvested, all too common die-offs result from inadequate winter habitat and snow too deep to move in, mortalities that occurred cyclically long before the arrival of coyotes, but that have as much to do with the habits of humans as they do with Mother Nature and the severity of Maine winters.
A less well-known phenomenon followed the expansion of white-tailed deer into regions they did not historically populate. Deer carry a secret weapon, Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, or brainworm, that feeds on their central nervous system without harming them. It is lethal, however, to other cervids (members of the deer family).
(For documentation on brainworm see Anderson, R.C. 1963. The incidence, development, and experimental transmission of Pneumostrongylus tenuis Dougherty (Metastrongyloidea: Protostrongylidea) of the meninges of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus borealis) in Ontario. Canadian Journal of Zoology 41:775-792.)
After adult worms reproduce, immature larvae discharged in the deer’s feces are picked up by slugs and snails. In this intermediate host, the larvae mature to the infective stage. When a browsing cervid inadvertently ingests these terrestrial gastropods, the life cycle of brainworm continues in the new host.
Unfortunately for moose and woodland caribou that formerly populated Maine’s northern and eastern regions, the parasite disturbs the normal function of the central nervous system, causing lack of coordination, stupor, increased susceptibility to predation, inability to eat and debilitating falls.
Not long after white-tailed deer encroached on caribou territory, the caribou population began to decline in Maine. This correlation was observed by the state’s tribal peoples, but the exact means was not understood until researchers identified brainworm’s role in “moose sickness” in 1964.
Had people known about the deer’s secret weapon that effectively decreases competition among cervids for similar food resources, they might have initiated an all-out campaign to eradicate deer from traditional caribou grounds. In that case, white-tailed deer might have become “Public Enemy No. 1.”
Yet, in a testament to people’s ignorance of population ecology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even in the face of evidence of sharply decreasing numbers, hunting the wandering bands of caribou — often for kicks — continued. The last caribou were observed on the tablelands of Katahdin in the early 20th century.
(For more information see Early Maine Wildlife Historical Accounts of Canada Lynx, Moose, Mountain Lion, White-tailed Deer, Wolverine, Wolves, and Woodland Caribou, 1603-1930 by William B. Krohn and Christopher L. Hoving, 2010.)
The result of the Maine Caribou Reintroduction Project concurs with the above Native American observation. In hindsight, one particularly fatal flaw of the project was to locate the captive breeding program in the middle of a deer yard at UMO, where most of the caribou obtained brainworm infection before being released.
Spared from being labeled a scourge, white-tailed deer have taken hold since as a driving economic force, with hunters harvesting many thousands every year. When coyotes moved into the state and began competing with humans for a portion of the deer harvest, all-out war was declared on them. No doubt they will remain thus as long as they are here, fueling the fervor evidenced by the man on the bike path’s inability to listen to reason.
When he failed to encounter the coyote, the stranger reversed direction and paused again. I reiterated that it was extremely improbable the animal he’d seen was rabid. Unconvinced, he felt compelled to declare, “I love wildlife — don’t get me wrong!” I thought, but refrained from saying, “Yeah, you love that old dog, too!”
Then he was off again, perhaps still hoping the coyote would be waiting somewhere along the way back to his truck.
Kathy Pollard of Orono studied wildlife management and nursing at the University of Maine. She worked for the Maine Caribou Reintroduction Project 1987-1992, including conducting vegetation surveys of Bigelow Mountain region and Baxter State Park, radio telemetry monitoring of released caribou, recovery of mortalities and their necropsies. She twice censused the deer on Marsh Island and studied the prevalence of brainworm in that population. She completed a master’s research project on P. tenuis in Maine moose after the original investigator left; the results published in Journal of Wildlife Diseases. She received the New England Outdoor Writers Association Award in 1989.