The first time I heard coyotes is burned into my heart. I was camped out in the Utah desert, enjoying the scent of sage while I lay in my sleeping bag under one of those intense desert nights where pinpricks of starlight burst through the black dome of sky. From a distance, I heard a chorus of enthusiastic yipping, dim at first and increasingly loud as the pack of coyotes ran toward me through the night. Shivers ran through me at the thrill (and primal tinge of fear!) of experiencing the coyotes so close. Then the sound dimmed as they faded into the distance. How many were there? Who knows! It sounded like a pack of twenty, but experienced coyote listeners say that a couple of coyotes can sound like a whole herd of varmints.

I've never again heard so many coyotes at once, whatever their numbers on that long ago desert night. But I have seen coyotes in numerous places since: a pair crossing a busy highway in a suburb of Syracuse, New York; a lone prowler hunting in a Tucson suburb on a sunny early morning; and furtive shapes crossing the rain forest highway at dusk near my Olympic Peninsula home. I've seen or heard them in the Adirondacks, the Rockies, the hot desert, sagebrush-covered ranchlands, and the Olympic Mountains. An adaptable creature, they have expanded from their original western range so that they now cover much of North America.

The most hated creature?

When Lewis & Clark came west along the Missouri River 200 years ago, they sighted a small dog-like mammal looking back at them from the riverbank. This creature was new to science at the time, and Meriwether Lewis named it "prairie wolf" because it was clearly related to the big timber wolves of the eastern forest and mountains, though much smaller and with a higher-pitched call.

Sometime long ago in the old West, prairie wolves became "coyotes," and transformed into the most hated creatures of the vast ranchlands. Generations of rural Westerners have learned to hate coyotes with a passion, for the coyote is an indiscriminate eater, and will gladly steal lambs and calves (or cats and dogs!) if opportunity knocks. On sheep and cattle ranches, that means money lost--hence the antipathy.

But coyote-hating goes way beyond reason and affects people everywhere. How did we get the notion that coyotes are scraggly, ugly animals? I'm not sure, but that view is widely held--yet few of the coyotes I've seen look flea-bitten and skinny. Most are healthy and have luxurious coats and intelligent eyes.

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A coyote panting on a scorching desert day in Joshua Tree National Park
Story and photographs Copyright 2001 by Lee Rentz
An eastern Washington rancher shot these coyotes, then draped them over a fence as a warning to other "varmints"
An Adirondack story

This story is second hand but based on the experience of a naturalist I trust to accurately relay the facts: A woman we knew in Syracuse went for a hike on a remote Adirondack trail with her dog. Her dog disappeared for several minutes in the forest, as dogs are prone to do when they are following a scent trail. But suddenly the dog came racing back to her, its tail between its legs and fear in its heart. Close on its tail were two coyotes. The dog cowered behind the woman's legs, while the coyotes watched intently from just a few feet away. A standoff continued for several long minutes while the woman aggressively shouted at the coyotes to go away. Finally they nonchalantly retreated--leaving the woman more than a bit shaken. It is rare that we confront the truly wild in this age, and it can shake us to our core when it happens so unexpectedly.

A coyote mingling with a cow and nursing calf on the eastern Oregon range
LEE RENTZ PHOTOGRAPHY
Phone & fax: 360-427-5310 E-mail: lee@leerentz.com
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