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Coyote, friend or foe for Delmarva's ecology? - December 15, 2011

Before Europeans arrived several hundred years ago, Delmarva (including the Maryland Coastal Bays watershed) was home to a variety of large mammalian carnivores, or carnivorans.

These included black bears, cougars, gray wolves, and bobcats. Today, these species are all gone. This has left an enormous ecological void with significant negative consequences.

Top predators perform an essential role in regulating prey populations. When they are eliminated from an ecosystem, their prey populations, particularly larger herbivores like deer, often explode in size.

This leads to massive over-browsing of many herbaceous and low-lying woody plants. In some areas, this alone can wipe out half the native plant species.

The decline in abundance and diversity of plants, in turn, has ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. Animals that depend on these plants for food and nesting (birds, insects) also disappear.

The end result is a landscape stripped of much of its biodiversity and rich natural beauty.

What is the solution? In part, hunting. Another part could be the reintroduction of large carnivorans.

Unfortunately, although a strong case can and should be made for reintroducing some of Delmarva's extirpated carnivorans (particularly bobcat and black bear, which will find plenty of adequate habitat in the nearby Pocomoke watershed), Maryland's Department of Natural Resources has shown little interest in wading into the public relations nightmare that such introductions often ignite. So how do coyotes fit into this picture?

Based on the best available evidence, when Europeans began colonizing North America, coyotes were largely restricted to the Great Plains and desert southwest.

As Europeans moved west, they began cutting down native forests and exterminating every wolf and cougar population in their path. Into this newly modified landscape devoid of large predators moved the coyote.

Over 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.

It should be noted that along the way, they did mate with the last remaining wolves, resulting in 0.3 percent to 13.1 percent of the eastern coyote genome being of wolf ancestry.

Is the spread of coyotes onto the peninsula good or bad? To many, the fact that coyotes are not native is reason enough to exterminate them. At present, they are one of only two species allowed to be hunted statewide during daylight hours year-round with no bag limits. To put this in perspective, the only other species with such permissive regulations is the introduced and ecologically destructive nutria.

When we focus exclusively on whether species are native or not, it is easy to lose sight of an equally important issue, the integrity of the entire ecosystem.

Delmarva's remaining native habitats are missing a huge part of the ecological puzzle: large carnivores. While coyotes are not ecologically identical to wolves (or cougars, bears, or bobcats for that matter), they are more like them than Delmarva's remaining carnivorans in one important respect: they eat deer.

Coyotes not only prey on deer fawns, they also take down adults, particularly in the winter. Coyotes help regulate other mammal populations as well (through predation and competition), much as Delmarva's extirpated large carnivorans once did. This also likely has important ecological benefits (and possible downsides), though these are less well understood.

Given their potential to at least partly fill the niche left wide open by the extirpation of large carnivorans, there is value to having coyotes in the region. Perhaps it is time to welcome these fascinating and misunderstood animals, rather than revile and exterminate them as we did their predecessors.

Hogue is a professor of biology at Salisbury University and a contributor to the Coastal Bays Program.

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