Should we be thinking of coyotes as invasive species?

I love Kentucky Afield, but I have some problems with the terminology in this clip.

The hunter in this video calls the coyote an invasive species in part because it killed some cats.

Now, cats clearly are an actual invasive species. They exist at much higher densities than any native mesopredators, and the truth is that anything that keeps cats numbers down or keeps them scared out of their minds to leave the house is a good thing for many small birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

The genus Felis is not native to any place in the Americas. Had Europeans never come over here, we would have our native cat species, which would exist at numbers that were controlled through competition with other native predators and the fluctuating numbers of prey species.

If any animal that has been introduced since the time of colonization has caused ecological chaos, it is the domestic cat.

This is what ecologists say, but cats have good publicity.  They have a fan club. I can’t say that I’m in it, but I can see why some people like them. They are like a mentally deficient dog that doesn’t require walks or much training, but they are far more intelligent than guinea pigs and better company than Syrian hamsters.

The same cannot be said for the coyote. Those of us who live outside the proposed original range for coyotes tend to think of them as a Western species that came into the East, but the truth is we have fossil evidence of  Pleistocene coyotes in the East, including in West Virginia.

We also have accounts of anomalous wolves. For example, John Smith described the “wolues” around Jamestown as not being much larger than English foxes. It is usually suggested that these Jamestown wolves were red wolves. Ignoring the real problems about what red wolves actually are, coyotes fit the description far better than anything we’ve ever called a red wolf.

Henry Wharton Shoemaker also wrote of a small brown wolf that was common in the Susquehanna Valley, which he contended was exactly the same thing as the coyote.

It is very possible that coyotes existed in the East but in far smaller numbers than they do now. The wolf hunters and fur trappers who came into the continent took as many wolves as they could, and they didn’t take great lengths to catalog what they were killing. They just killed them, and they either got their bounty or sold the hides.  And many Native American dogs went with them.

So I think it is possible that there were some coyotes in East, but their big range expansion didn’t happen until the extirpation of larger wolves.

Further, the entire genus Canis has its origins in this continent.  The earliest forms of the genus was Canis evolved in North America 6 million years ago, though they were restricted to the Southwest and Northern Mexico, but coyotes and coyote-like canids were found throughout what became the United States during the Pleistocene.

The genus Felis didn’t appear here until permanent European colonization and settlement.

So this idea that you’re killing the coyote as the “invasive species” to protect the cat is a total perversion of the ecological concept.

It is also interesting that no one ever calls a red fox an invasive species in the United States– with the except of Eastern red foxes that have been introduced to California. The red fox was not found south of the Northern Great Lakes, Northern New York, and Northern New England, but it is now found over most of the Eastern states.

It was originally claimed that it derived from English imports, but recent genetic analysis and historical research have found that red foxes in the East and South descend from those foxes that wandered south from Canada and the northern tier of states.

The red fox took advantage of the clearing of forests, which disadvantaged the gray fox, its main competitor, and came south in large numbers. They introduced themselves to the new territory in the same way that coyotes would later do as the wolves were killed off.

No one seriously considers the red fox to be an invasive species. It also has a record of being in parts of Virginia and Tennessee during the Pleistocene, but it did not exist when Europeans came.

Most states treat it as a proper game animal. Mine has a proscribed hunting and trapping season for them, but coyotes can be killed all year round.

But the “native” status of the two animals is fairly similar, and if these older accounts of anomalous small wolves in Pennsylvania and Virginia describe coyotes, then the coyote has a much stronger native status than the red fox.

“Invasive species” is a term that really does have a meaning to it, but it cannot be allowed to be used in such a way that it means any animal that inconveniences us.

We should use that term to mean animals that were introduced either by accident or intention and that have caused real ecological damage. I am thinking feral hogs here. And cane toads. And marmorated stink bug.

And yes, feral cats.

Natural History

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