Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Down East Politics of Coyote Pelting

Our Coyotes Are Bigger Than Your Coyotes, Unfortunately

When Born Free USA sent me to Halifax, Nova Scotia, last month, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’ve been to the province many times before, but now I was scheduled to join local environmentalists in a meeting with the provincial minister of natural resources, Charlie Parker, and some of his staff. The issue was the government’s controversial “pelt incentive program,” which pays trappers $20 for every coyote pelt they turn in. One official (unfortunately absent from our meeting) is quoted in the media as saying, “Trappers must check their traps every day, and their presence in the woods, and the traps they set, send a regular message to the coyote population that humans should be avoided.”

Huh? Is this message via e-mail? Phone calls? Word, or perhaps yelp, of mouth? Coyotes are very smart compared to, say, some wildlife management biologists, but surely they don’t go around saying to each other things like, “Say, did you hear what happened to Larry? Got caught in a trap and killed, so that must mean that we’d better stay away from those humans — they are so dangerous!” Wouldn’t an increase in humans habituate them to, not against, humans?

I don’t mean to make light of the problem. Of all the millions of encounters between coyotes and humans there have been two that led to human deaths, and one of those happened in Nova Scotia, on Oct. 27, 2009, when 19-year-old Toronto-based folk singer Taylor Mitchell was attacked, apparently by two or more coyotes, as she hiked the beautiful Skyline Trail on Cape Breton Island. By all accounts this talented young woman was a wonderful person and her loss is a horrific tragedy. Also by all accounts she was a devoted nature-lover whose own family opposes the idea of a bounty put on natural predators.

In the adjoining province of New Brunswick there is a far more enlightened attitude toward coyotes, and recognition that while coyotes may pose a rare threat to humans, bounties don’t work, and never have worked in 200 years, to end conflicts between coyotes and people.

I came to think that Parker and his staff knew that. The pelt incentive is one part of a four-part plan, the rest of which includes public educational initiatives, training 13 trappers to specifically capture known aggressive individual animals when needed, and adding a wildlife conflict biologist to the staff.

Coyotes are relatively new to eastern Canada, with the first positive record for Nova Scotia established a mere 35 years ago. Darwinian evolution is at work and already eastern coyotes are distinctly larger than their western brethren. In fact, I believe that they are evolving to occupy the ecological role of larger predators, such as wolves and pumas, long ago wiped out in Atlantic Canada. Bigger coyotes have a survival edge over the smaller ones, partly thanks to their ability to prey on numerous white-tailed deer. But they are not wolves, a species who is notoriously retiring in the presence of humans. Several people, recently including one child grabbed by the head, have been bitten. The statistical likelihood of such an encounter is still extremely remote, but it exists.

The bounty is not expected to reduce the population, the claim being that its purpose is to teach coyotes to fear humans. Whatever they say, I don’t think Parker’s staff believes such silliness, and the real reason for the bounty is more nuanced. It serves a social/political function. Its cost to the provincial budget is relatively small and Nova Scotians are not complaining about it, so from a political standpoint it “works.” Something can be said to be being done; voters aren’t complaining.

But of course voters are also being told that trapping will “teach” coyotes to avoid humans. The degree of public acceptance of the scheme is at least partly a result of misleading them, thus serving a political, not pragmatic, function that the taxpayers fund. As long as the voters are misled, it’s a politically efficacious solution to “the coyote problem.”

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

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