A lone, gray pickup truck with its headlights off rolls along the gravel road in the pale light of a full moon. The truck stops along a tree line in front of a long, broad field and two camouflaged men get out. They close the doors slowly so as to not make any noise. The men sling their rifles over their shoulders and whisper about where to begin. Down past the woods? Over at the neighboring farm?
A long, chilling howl erupts from the woods across the freshly cut hay field in front of them, followed by a chorus of yips and more howling. Mike Hummell watches and listens. He zips up his jacket against the cold. “You want to hunt that?” he asks his hunting partner, Marshall Koontz.
Hummell and Koontz are specialist hunters who respond to calls from concerned residents about predators preying on their flocks of sheep, herds of cows, etc. Working pro bono last week, they had received a call from a farmer concerned about a top-level predator that has recently arrived in Virginia—the coywolf. Also called the eastern coyote, the coywolf is a hybrid of western coyotes and eastern timber wolves, and it may represent an entirely new species.
For most of human history, wolves have been feared and hated. They ate livestock and occasionally attacked humans. Virginia’s first government bounty on wolves was enacted at Jamestown in 1632. As settlers moved west, the slaughter accompanied them across the continent and bounties continued to be paid in some states into the early 20th century. The removal of wolves enabled the expansion of the coyote.
For thousands of years, coyotes were restricted to the American West in part because of competition with wolves. The larger predators attack coyotes to protect their territories from another canid, which competes somewhat for prey. With the wolves gone, coyotes began to expand their range. As young, lone coyotes went in search of new territories they sometimes encountered remnant populations of eastern timber wolves. In small dating pools, love blossomed between two species that would normally fight.
The hybrids are larger than western coyotes and smaller than eastern timber wolves. A pure-blooded male western coyote tops out at under 30 pounds. A male timber wolf averages around 67 pounds. Male coywolves typically weigh in at around 35 pounds, especially if they manage to live for more than two years. None of these animals is large enough to threaten a healthy adult human.
Janis Jaquith, a long-time resident of Free Union, had her first encounter with what she believes was a coywolf in summer 2004. She watched her flock of eight guinea fowl walking toward her house at dusk with a coyote following them.
“That animal didn’t care that I was there at all,” she says. “It was just kind of sauntering maybe six feet behind the last guinea fowl. So I went over to it and I clapped my hands together and said, ‘Get out of here you bastard, get out of here!’ This thing didn’t care at all. A dog would have been spooked and gone away. …It looked over at me out of the corner of its eye like a teenager and then kind of raised its chin and slowly sauntered off to the side into the woods.”
Within a year, nocturnal predators had wiped out most of the flock.
Scientific research into Virginia’s coywolf population began in 2011. Dr. Marcella Kelly, professor of wildlife studies at Virginia Tech, has been contracted by Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to study the diets of coywolves. Complaints from deer hunters of dwindling prey in Bath and Rockingham counties prompted the agency to look into whether coywolves are responsible.
“We have the breakdown of their diet,” Dr. Kelly says. “It’s 45 percent deer. Deer is the primary thing in their diet; voles is the second-largest component. Believe it or not, the next two are mast (edible parts of woody plants, such as acorns and rose hips) and insects. Vegetation, blueberries, stuff like that. We’ve got squirrels, rabbits, and the last one is birds. …I think you do have to worry about pets. They’re a predator like any other predator. They’ll take a pet if it’s there and they are hungry. With sheep, there is an issue. There are problem animals. It’s not that the population as a whole does this, but some individuals specialize in it.”
The coyote hunters have their own opinions about the eating habits of coyotes, owing to years of observation of their behavior and picking apart their scat.
“Oddly enough, they eat more cow pies than cows,” says Hummell as he sets up a shoulder-high tripod during his moonlight hunt. “Everybody thinks that coyotes eat nothing but meat. They actually are more of a fruit-eater than anything. One of their favorite foods is persimmons, oddly enough…granted you are gonna see them eat rabbits, they eat small game, they love fox. It’s one of their favorite food groups, the red fox. They don’t mess with gray fox too much because they can’t catch them. Gray fox can climb a tree.”
To the top of the tripod Hummell fastens his rifle, a suppressed AR-15 with a night vision scope. Koontz sets up a bolt action Remington Model 700 on his own tripod and flips on a thermal imaging system. Blowing a tubular caller dangling from a string around his neck, Hummell begins producing a series of long howls. Koontz follows with a series of yips from his own caller. The pair adds up to a convincing facsimile of a rival pack of coyotes. Within seconds, the real coyotes begin to respond. Closer, this time. They are on the move.
“Typically, people get a misconception,” Koontz says. “They say, ‘I heard 10!’ But when they’re out moving back and forth, two can sound like a dozen. …Their core area is usually gonna be in a thick, dense spot, abundant in small game to where they don’t have to fight for food. That’s why when you hear them barking at each other, two different packs, it’s this pack here is trying to intimidate that pack.”
Hummell and Koontz continue to challenge the pack that is audibly moving toward the tripods and rifles. A light switches on in a house about 300 yards away. Shouting is heard from inside.
People worry about coyotes: farmers with livestock, families with pets and children. But Kelly says attacks on humans are rare.
“As for humans, there have been very few attacks, but they’ve happened,” she says. “I don’t know that anyone has ever been killed by a coyote. In those attack situations, there’s usually extenuating circumstances. (There is) very little risk in terms of human attacks.”
The distinct sound of a screen door slaps shut from the nearby house. A yelping chorus of beagles erupts. Hummell and Koontz watch and wait to see if the dogs will deter the coywolves from coming within range. Even as he peers through his night vision scope with his finger hovering on the outside of the trigger guard, Hummel advises a certain amount of tolerance for coywolves.
“If you come into an area where it’s really quiet and you know there’s coyote activity that usually means that you have a very big one there, the alpha,” he says. “The alpha is something that keeps other coyotes in check. …Let’s say you have goats over here and one goat is being eaten every month, month and a half. (If you) shoot that alpha, he’s what’s keeping these coyotes in check because they’re not gonna mess with him. You shoot him and these other packs no longer have a sense of intimidation. They’re gonna come in; they’re gonna clear your goats out. They’re gonna eat every one. It’s one of these things where you need to pick and choose your battles. …This pack over here isn’t allowed to come in here. That’s why you still have goats.”
Science is bearing out some of what Hummel has observed in the field. Kelly’s research shows that poorly planned hunting can make a coyote problem worse.
“When you take out coyotes, it leaves this big space and more coyotes come in,” Kelly says. “Then they have a really big litter the next year. It does not make a big difference when you take out a lot of animals. You can try, and people are trying with bounties. The coyotes in Bath County have about a 50 percent chance of living for six months [due to hunting by humans], but their reproduction is really fast. When Chicago did a big cull a few years ago, they had litter sizes of 14 pups the next year.” The average litter size is six.
Most eastern coyotes are genetically about 66 percent coyote, 24 percent wolf and about 10 percent of DNA originating from domestic dogs. The genetic contribution from dogs is relatively low because dogs may go into heat and become pregnant at any time, while wolves and coyotes have a reproductive cycle closely timed to the annual calendar. (Pups born in the late summer or fall will probably not survive in the wild through winter.) A 2009 study showed that all black wolves and coyotes in North America owe that gene to hybridization with European dogs. Virginia’s coywolves are often black, demonstrating their ancestry.
In the course of her research, Kelly noticed a slight advantage to being a black coywolf. “We had one black coyote who lasted for years [without being killed by hunters], we think because he looked like a dog and had a [tracking]collar on.”
Hummell and Koontz listen as their unseen prey changes direction. Previously on a trajectory headed for their guns, the coyotes turn away as the pack of beagles does its job. As the hunters know all too well, coywolves are not shy about approaching human settlements.
“I hear coyotes every night, their yips quickly escalating into an unnerving crescendo and then falling silent,” writes Albemarle County resident Lilia Fuquen in an e-mail. “Sometimes I think they must be less than a quarter mile away; they sound like they’re closing in on the house.” She lives nine miles outside of Charlottesville’s city limits.
“During the summer of 2014, our flock of hens began to dwindle, quickly,” writes Fuquen. “They were free-range hens that had survived several years, but over the course of a week, half the flock was taken. Foxes and coyotes had discovered them. One afternoon, I was gardening out front when I heard one of the surviving hens squawking at the back of the house. I tore around the house at a full sprint and saw a tall, lanky, mangy-looking coyote lurking on the back porch, less than four feet from the back door of the house. It stopped, looked at me and just stood there. After a split-second, I began screaming wildly and flailing my arms about, running toward it. It turned slowly, glanced back at me over its shoulder, and in no hurry, sauntered down off the porch and away into the fields beyond the house.”
“I know farmers and friends and they’ve complained about them a little bit,” whispers Koontz as his quarry disappears into the night. “Most of them around here you don’t hear about them attacking the cows because they put more bulls in every lot, which seems to keep the attacks down. …Typically coyotes don’t fool with the cows a lot unless they’re sick or getting ready to calve.”
With their diets incorporating so much whitetail deer, it may seem like the coywolves may be filling the ecological niche left when wolves were exterminated from Virginia in the 1800s. But Kelly doesn’t think it’s that simple. Unlike wolves, “coyotes are sort of nature’s garbage collectors,” she says. “They will eat a lot of different things. We’ve lost so many predators. They’re not necessarily filling the wolf niche. Wolves hunted in a fundamentally different way from coyotes and can take much larger prey.”
While coyotes are omnivores that dabble in a lot of small game, wolves specialize in hunting animals of more than 100 pounds. In Virginia, they likely ate a lot of elk and bison. The last Virginia bison was killed in 1801 by Daniel Boone’s youngest son, Nathan, and elk have only just been reintroduced to deep southwest Virginia. The ecological context for pure-blooded wolves, a natural predator of the coyote, to exist in the Commonwealth of Virginia has disappeared.
And it isn’t clear that coywolves are killing all of the deer that they are eating. Kelly’s method for studying their diet involves picking apart scat to see what types of hair and bone fragments are in it. Virginia’s steady supply of road kill could be providing some amount of that deer hair and bone found in the samples being studied. One of the most surprising results of Kelly’s study has been finding that Virginia bobcat populations had been significantly underestimated. Many samples of scat that had been visually identified as coming from coyotes or foxes turned out to be from bobcats. Some of the hypothesized new predation on deer may have come from bobcats or other predators.
“Bears have increased dramatically in the last 10 years,” Kelly says. “The predator community here is pretty amazing. We took scat samples and analyzed them and 50 percent were bobcats. The number of bobcats is pretty large. It’s a pretty interesting system with this increase of bears, introduction of coyotes and we have a lot more bobcats than anyone realized. “
There is no official estimate of the total population of coyotes in Albemarle County. The mixture of habitats and available food is different from the steep wooded mountains in the region Kelly is studying. But the consensus among local coyote hunters is that roughly there is a pack of coywolves ranging from a lone alpha male to up to a dozen individual coyotes for every five square miles in Albemarle County (726 square miles). If that is true, that would be about 145 groups of coyotes in the county, with a total population somewhere between 500 and 1,000. Albemarle’s mixture of woods and cultivated fields offers an ideal mix of habitat for coywolves.
The pair of coyote hunters quietly pack up their tripods, night vision gear and rifles—time to move on. They combat sub- freezing temperatures in two more locations known to harbor problem coyotes before giving up for the night. Repeatedly, packs of domestic hunting dogs ran off the coywolves as the hunters were calling them in.
“Probably about 10 years ago we started seeing [coyotes] a lot and it’s just exploded,” says Koontz. “I have seen, deer hunting, when I’ve retrieved a deer I’ve seen the coyotes on it instantly. They go after the weak. They don’t go after the strong, per se—unless they’re really hungry. Each coyote is different. Some are aggressive, some aren’t.”