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The Coyote and the Eagle: Coyote hunt could have unintended consequences 

click to enlarge nw_coyoteonfencepost-silverlake.jpg
"Jim!" a fellow naturalist shouted over the phone last week, "Have you seen the story on the front page of The Bulletin about the coyote derby some guy from Silver Lake organized?"

"More eagles are going to die from lead poisoning from this stupid coyote derby than if they had made it into an eagle derby," he said referring a story about the controversy surrounding an upcoming "coyote derby" - an event that challenges hunters to shoot as many coyotes, which have no protection under state or federal laws - during an established time frame. This week's hunt covers parts of Klamath, Lake, Harney and Malheur counties.

My friend knows all about eagles and lead poisoning, having seen too many golden and bald eagles suffer from the insidious results of eating lead-laced carcasses. The sight of an eagle with its legs and feet painfully cramped and locked together under its body, wings and tail twisted, and head and neck paralyzed from the effect of lead-poisoning is something you never forget.

Raptor rehabbers all over the West are seeing more and more victims of lead poisoning because of coyote sport shooting. Most shooters leave the animal where it died, easily found by raptors. A high-powered lead projectile splits into slivers of toxic lead when it strikes an animal, be it coyote, bear, elk or deer. If the projectile hits bone before the velocity is wasted, the lead breaks into even smaller bits and slices its way into muscle and fat, leaving behind lethal doses of lead for eagles, hawks, owls and other animals to consume.

Winter is always tough for eagles. If female eagles, both golden and bald, do not consume the right amount of protein during winter, they will not develop eggs for spring. Therefore, they are on the lookout for food continually, and when a bald eagle finds a coyote carcass, it isn't long before three more have found it as well. One eagle observes another eagle suddenly break for the surface and knows that means food.

But the insidious death from eating lead-contaminated coyote carcasses isn't the only part about a coyote derby that's harmful. The shooters, thinking they're doing game animals - such as elk, mule deer and pronghorn - a favor, are really doing just the opposite. Coyotes eat the competitors of game animals.

I did a stomach analysis years ago at Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge when the old USFWS predator and rodent control coyote killers (an oxymoron if there ever was one) went there ostensibly to remove coyotes for better antelope kid survival. Every coyote that was killed eventually ended up on my workbench where, with the help of a zoologist from Reed College, I analyzed every stomach. (The shooters got so carried away with their task they even killed bobcats, which are protected by Oregon state law...)

We never did find an antelope kid in a stomach, but we did discover one game animal: a sage grouse. The overwhelming prey that coyotes had been feeding on was ground squirrels, pocket gophers and small rodents. From an examination of the rodent's teeth and skulls, we identified pocket mice, voles, kangaroo rats and unknown smaller rodents, all of which compete with pronghorns for food.

Another important factor also came out of that long-ago study. A researcher on the bench next to mine was looking at reproductive organs of the females killed by the shooters. He discovered scars that indicated many of them were having abnormally large litter sizes. Instead of the usual three to five, he found up to eight puppies for each pregnancy.

He had a theory that coyotes that were killed indiscriminately (such as during a coyote derby) broke up territorial pairs, which meant temporary lower reproduction. To compensate, however, one dog (male) would run with three or more bitches (females) and instead of producing the normal, smaller number of pups, they were filling the void with greater numbers.

That's what has been apparently happening over the past 100-plus years the coyote has been wantonly killed in the West. Larger puppy sizes lead to overcrowding, which caused coyotes to disburse throughout North America. Now, they are found from downtown Los Angeles to the Oregon Coast, all over Washington, Canada, and all the way east to New England; all thanks to indiscriminate shooting, poisoning, snaring, "getters," den destruction and other methods used to "control" the coyote. If you have to shoot coyotes, shoot the ones causing problems (with Barnes bullets), and leave the others alone.

So, thanks all you people who find it enjoyable to kill coyotes, you have provided us with another example of why the coyote should be managed by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife like most of our wildlife, not the Department of Agriculture - and - why all lead-based ammunition should be banned!


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