Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History

By Dan Flores

Basic Books, 2016; 288 pages; $27.99

Between 1915 and 1947, by its own account, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shot, gassed, or poisoned nearly two million coyotes. For much of the early twentieth century, this attempt to eliminate large predators had the blessing of ranchers and conservationists alike. Sheepmen, with some justification, saw coyotes and wolves as a serious threat to their livelihood and even naturalist and nature essayist John Burroughs wrote that predators “certainly needed killing” so that more “useful and beautiful game” like elk and deer could be preserved.

The war against coyotes, one of the main themes of this absorbing book by historian Dan Flores, was, from a twenty-first century viewpoint, both ruthless and useless. Beginning in 1915, when Congress hired three hundred hunters to fan out over the west, predator eradication developed into an industrial enterprise that the author grimly labels “species cleansing.” The effort included a federal Eradication Methods Laboratory in Denver, which specialized in brewing lethal poisons for predators and finding ways to administer them most efficiently. A favorite method was to dope horse carcasses with sodium fluoroacetate, an extract of an Australian pea plant, and scatter them in the countryside. Coyotes feeding on the tainted meat would feel nothing for a while, but would die an hour or two later, far enough from the carcass so that other coyotes would not associate the meat with danger. An even more effective method, inspired by World War II weapons research, involved explosive cartridges filled with cyanide and baited with coyote-attractants, causing nearly instant death and no outward signs of poisoning. “It left,” Flores writes, “pretty corpses.”

Yet coyotes survived and even flourished. Flores attributes their resilience in part to their innate intelligence and their ability to learn from one another. Some aboriginal cultures knew this well and invested the coyote with supernatural powers. Modern science has identified several natural evolutionary adaptations that have contributed to the coyote’s success. The first is a flexible social structure that enables coyotes to act both collectively and as individuals, adapting quickly and appropriately to external threats and changing environments. The second is a lengthy childhood, which makes it possible for young coyotes to learn from recent experiences of their parents. Finally, and most remarkably, coyotes are able to react to species threats by birthing more pups, increasing litter size by as much as a factor of three.

And so, as the U.S. waged war on coyotes in the west, the animals simply multiplied and moved east, spreading through woodlands and along highways, establishing residence in every state except Hawaii by 2010, when they were seen trotting contentedly among the housing developments and golf courses of Delaware. They live in cities far from the lone prairie, with an estimated 2,000 in Chicago, and more than 5,000 in Los Angeles. In 2006, New York newspapers were filled with photos of Hal, a coyote that showed up in Central Park, and in 2015, three coyotes tried to make a home on the campus of Columbia University. “Everyone in America is now living…in a sea of coyotes,” notes the author, so that “just about everyone has a coyote story.” The coyote stories in this book are among the best, and Flores is a master storyteller.