Coyotes help restore ecological diversity
Few animals could help restore the biological integrity of Eastern Shore woodlands better than coyotes.
Before Europeans arrived several hundred years ago, Delmarva was home to a variety of large mammalian carnivores. These included black bears, cougars, gray wolves and bobcats. Today, these species are gone.
This has left an enormous ecological void with significant negative consequences. Top predators perform an essential role in regulating prey populations, controlling invasive species, reducing disease hosts and substantially improving wildlife diversity.
On the Eastern Shore, the demise of these wild predators has likely increased the prevalence of Lyme disease and drastically increased raccoon, red fox and opossum populations while bludgeoning populations of quail and other ground-nesting bird species. A favorite prey of coyotes, white-footed mice are the primary vector for Lyme disease. The return of coyotes could help quell the scourge of the disease on the Shore.
Because coyotes eat and directly compete with red foxes, raccoons and opossum, the return of the higher order predator in the eastern U.S. has helped control the bloated populations of these three species. Scientists blame the trio for the declines in ground-nesting bird species due to their appetite for eggs and chicks. Decades ago, it was also assumed that coyotes could control feral cat populations, but studies suggest predation from foxes and rabies infection from raccoon bites are more of a threat to outdoor cats than coyotes.
Smart and social like domesticated dogs, coyotes will also take small deer, the primary cause of diversity decline in the remaining forests on Delmarva. Hunting for white-tailed deer is critical to controlling populations, but it has proven unable to keep pace with explosive reproduction. During the past few hundred years, hunting has resulted in genetically smaller deer due to our appetite for hunting big bucks. By taking smaller deer, coyotes help restore the natural order by exerting selection pressure on smaller, slower growing deer which, in turn, results in larger deer. In short, more coyotes mean bigger deer.
But it also means less deer browsing. From a biologist’s standpoint, this is perhaps the biggest benefit of the canids. White-tailed deer have drastically altered the forest composition on the Shore. The proliferation of invasive multi-flora rose, Russian olive, phragmites and Japanese honeysuckle, plus the loss in diversity from the deciduous sapling-guzzling herbivores, has changed forest composition, straining populations of birds, amphibians and native plants.
In the past few hundred years, coyotes have spread east, making it to the northern neck of Delmarva around 1921, and are now found in every county on the Eastern Shore. At present, they are one of only two species allowed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to be hunted statewide during daylight hours year-round with no bag limits. The only other species with such permissive regulations is the introduced and ecologically destructive nutria.
Given their potential to fill the niche left wide open by the extirpation of large carnivores, the state should consider espousing a role of promoting biological diversity. Maryland has done an excellent job of expanding hunting seasons for white-tailed deer, resident Canada geese and other biologically destructive species. It should consider the opposite for those that increase diversity. The move would ultimately benefit those of us who hunt and fish.
A primary role of the Coastal Bays Program is to help restore the biological integrity and the rich natural beauty of the barrier island estuary. To do this we have to put science over superstition and allow reason and morality to trump fear-inducing childhood fairytales.
Perhaps it is time to welcome fascinating and misunderstood animals, rather than revile and exterminate them as we did their predecessors.