The carcass lay in an open Vermont field in the still, snow-filled afternoon in late January.
His skull and bones had been picked clean by his fellow predators and, no doubt, by hungry opportunists, the crows and the ravens. His teeth were clenched together, locked in a strange, grim smile of death. I collected his skull, wondering how the young coyote had met his inglorious end.
We can never know how or why he died, but we can make an educated guess as to his demise: starvation, a hunter’s bullet or an accident. A coyote’s short life is consumed by a never-ending search for food — and by great danger.
That is the way it is for the animal that one Native American tribe, so enamored, dubbed “God’s dog.”
The Eastern coyote, an extremely intelligent, adaptable and opportunistic predator, took up residence in the Green Mountain State only 60 years ago and, since then, has thrived despite human efforts to the contrary.
Mention the word “coyote” to most folks and be prepared for a debate. The coyote is viewed as either a curse or a blessing, depending on one’s point of view.
To the vast majority of hunters, however, the coyote is considered as vermin, a killer of deer — the animal that has no rightful place in Vermont.
Vermont deer hunters are passionate about their sport. And they genuinely care about the health of the deer herd. That all comes out very clearly during a series of deer hearings held around the state every winter.
But, and this is largely because too many of them rely on rumor and myth and are all too eager to find the boogey man, they often blame the Eastern coyote for whatever fluctuations may occur in the deer population.
“Coyotes are killing our deer,” one hunter complained at a deer hearing in Castleton earlier this year.
After 45 years of hunting deer in five states, including vast stretches of big woods in the Northeast Kingdom, in northern Maine and in the Adirondacks, I have never seen a coyote chasing a deer — or killing one, for that matter.
But, oh, do the tall tales abound. I once heard a deer hunter talk about a single coyote running down a “big, 10-point buck’ in the open woods of November. Sorry, bub, but it ain’t going to happen. A large, 40-pound coyote would be no match for a healthy, heavy antlered buck, which could just as easily maim the predator with his antlers as with a blow from one of its hooves.
Another hunter talked about how he found the remains of 10 — a nice, round figure at that — fawns around a coyote den. That’s just another convenient, tall tale told — and often repeated — by coyote-hating deer hunters.
While I have made it clear that I have never, personally, witnessed a coyote running a deer, I can say that I have seen at least a dozen dogs running whitetails. That’s your friendly pet, Fido, running free in the woods, hassling deer for the sheer thrill of it all.
Dogs that run deer in the late winter months, after much of the deer’s stored fat has been consumed by bitter cold, do have a significant impact on deer mortality. Just ask the biologists or the game wardens who have personally witnessed a dog ripping apart a live deer’s hindquarters.
Some deer hunters have an absolute hatred of the coyote, based on their long-held beliefs — passed on from generation to generation — that coyotes prey on vast numbers of deer.
Coyotes do kill deer, but studies of coyote scat reveal that they will feed on whatever is edible — and available — at the time, including rodents, rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, insects, fruit, vegetation and cut corn.
The impact that coyotes have on the Vermont deer herd is nowhere near what most deer hunters believe it is. Fish & Wildlife biologists have said so.
Kim Royer, the former fur-bearing biologist and now the second-in-command at the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, addressed a group of hunters who gathered in Randolph Center in 2006 for a public meeting on Eastern coyotes. The meeting was generated by controversy swirling around coyote hunting contests held primarily in Addison County.
While coyotes do kill deer, Royer says, they do not represent a serious threat to the state’s deer herd.
“Winter severity is the most significant factor affecting deer population fluctuations,” according to Royer.
But Royer’s comments, despite her background, did not dissuade many of the more than 100 hunters who gathered for the meeting.
Then, as now, many deer hunters believe that the decline in the Vermont deer population is directly linked to the presence of coyotes.
Back in 2005, when coyote hunting tournaments began to take hold in Vermont, a vigorous debate was being held concerning the ethics of these “hunts,” which went so low as to award a monetary figure for the smallest coyote brought in.
The coyote tournaments generated a great deal of press and resulted in some landowners posting their property for the first time.
We don’t hear anything about coyote tournaments any more, but the word on the street is that organizers have decided that public announcements generated bad publicity. The tournaments persist, according to some sources, with the dates and places getting around by word of mouth.
The Eastern coyote is, in fact, the modern-day version of Vermont’s Big Bad Wolf.
At deer hearings held around the state every winter, hunters stand and talk about the evil that coyotes do. Hunter after hunter offers remedies concerning what could be done about the “problem” of coyotes.
Give a free license to any hunter who kills 10 coyotes, one hunter says.
“If you kill a female with five pups, you’re killing six coyotes,” says another hunter at a hearing in Montpelier.
“As far as the coyotes go, we ought to kill them all,” a Brandon man says. His comments prompted a huge round of applause.
There is an open season on coyotes — you can kill one or more any day of the year. Even night hunting is allowed. And still the big predators thrive.
Unlike, say a deer, studying the behavior of a coyote is nearly impossible. Constantly on the move, they don’t give you that kind of time. They appear for only moments and then, poof, they are gone, phantoms of the forest. Often heard more than seen, their eerie howling is about as wild-sounding as it gets.
Perhaps because I spend so much time in the woods hunting wild turkeys in both the spring and fall seasons, I have been lucky enough to have called in four coyotes with turkey calls. While coyotes certainly must stalk and kill some turkeys, especially the young birds, it is unlikely that they have much luck munching on adult birds. Wild turkeys are simply too wary. But still they try.
One morning, back in 2005, I was turkey hunting along a broad meadow in Castleton, tucked just inside the wood line. Hunting with a decoy that was bobbing, up and down with tantalizing reality, thanks to a constant wind, I watched a coyote come strolling across the field, about 150 yards away. My calls must have gotten his attention.
Seconds later, the coyote made his way in my general direction then stopped about 30 yards away, looking off, casually, to the west, away from the decoy. He appeared to be distracted by something. Then, in an incredible burst of speed, the coyote charged and struck the soft, molded decoy, lifting it from its peg and knocking it down.
Immediately after he made contact with the decoy, the coyote turned and ran — at full speed — across the field.
The morning convinced me just how smart coyotes are, particularly when it comes to planning and executing a kill.
The large, shy, wolf-like animals are still sometimes referred to as “coydogs,” a term that goes a long way to diminishing a very wild creature. The term got its beginning as coyote numbers began to swell in Vermont about 30 years ago.
The belief was that, somehow, wild coyotes bred with dogs and the result was coydogs. It just doesn’t happen. Coyotes don’t breed with domestic dogs — they kill them, as well as cats, foxes and a host of other critters found throughout Vermont.
Invariably, a hunter will stand at one of the statewide deer hearings and tell Fish & Wildlife biologists that the time has come for the department to put a bounty on the coyote.
But history shows that hunting, bounties, snaring and trapping has little effect on coyote populations.
The fact is, love them or hate them, coyotes are here to stay.
Vermonters hunt deer because they love the sport and are eager to pass it along to generations. They hunt deer for the sheer pleasure of it all and for the great venison that it provides. I’m one of those people. I don’t only like to hunt deer; I love to hunt deer.
But if we carry the argument to its base, just who is on the higher moral ground — the deer hunter, out for the thrill of the hunt, or the coyote, which must kill in order to survive?
Dennis Jensen is the outdoor editor for the Rutland Herald and Barre Times Argus and a member of the board of directors of the New England Outdoor Writers Association.