An essay on working with wild Coyotes in the Californian Central Valley
by Kelly Michelle Baker
You know, it’s sometimes a rough go being a young ecologist. After four-plus years of exams, loans, groans and you finally try to enter the workforce. Then it doesn’t even want you. Most entry-level jobs are only temporary and pay very little indeed, if anything at all. Furthermore, they don’t really want your education, your genius, your dreams; they want your skills set and above all experience. So suddenly that perfect point average that you fought for so laboriously in college is topped by another’s raw field experience. For every fifty applications you submit, you may hear back from just two employers. If you are exceptionally lucky, then you’ll get an interview. If the stars are aligned, you’ll be hired.
So why do we even bother? Simply put: someone has to. The planet is warming. Natural resources are vanishing. Whether or not you’re in the habit of hugging trees, ecology affects everyone and everything, and whatever your profession, you play a role, you have an impact somewhere. As a wise bear once said “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Although last-minute vegetation thinning, so no brush to spread the flames, didn’t save my house from 2012’s Waldo Canyon fire…and luckily Colorado Springs firefighters were more capable than ours. Somewhere out there is an important cause though and we’ve the power and passion to fight for it, so long as the Buzz brings it to the forefront of our often blinkered lives and clipped attention spans.
I sound a little vitriolic sometimes. I can be. The battle for a green earth is just that: a fight. For every winter night that my roommate and I trade indoor heating for a wooly sweater, our neighbor is basking in their own personal furnace. For every day we try to buy sustainable foods, someone is enjoying a Big Mac (in the sense such a thing is enjoyable, if you’ll forgive my culinary snobbery). With over-exploitation and over-population too, it’s an uphill climb and mine are just the little steps. What are the really big ones then? After facing two years of infrequent employment, I finally made the decision to go back to grad school. Although my intentions were necessarily self-serving, and still are to the extent I need a pay cheque, my advocacy has sharpened. That stands to reason; I’m among my own people now, each with their own passion, their own issue too. I adopt their interests and they adopt mine. That’s the glory of education — in finding your calling and running headfirst towards that better tomorrow.
So what am I doing now and how am I becoming a better ecologist? That’s the biggest question you’re faced with entering grad school. I took it very seriously indeed. By asking seasoned faculty members, hounding them sometimes, by turning to the big guns too like the Fish and Wildlife Service, at last I found my answer: I was going to collect coyote poop! I guess you might call it Doo or Die… Laugh. No really, laugh! Please. Poop, fecal matter, dog dung, whatever you call it, is after all inherently funny. The fact that I am up to my neck in it now is even funnier because, as a person with some personal digestive issues myself, as my family well know, perhaps it’s kismet I would at last get to examine the scat of another omnivorous animal. Yet why is collecting scat so important? In that I am perfectly serious and it’s not that obvious either. Here are my field-won justifications then:
1) Coyotes effect everything in the local food chain, probably more than you think, even if you don’t spend your day thinking about it! The best way to find out what they eat is to look at what they leave behind. Although coyotes have an evolutionary aptitude for a predator diet, they’ll eat anything from wild grapes to crickets. Here in the Californian Central Valley we have many crops and in the Fall coyotes start eating tomatoes. Quite a few of them, in fact. Almonds too. This may hinder or help agriculture but whether or not they are scoffing enough crops to cause any substantial damage is beyond the scope of my study, as yet. BUT we can know with certainty that coyotes prevent crop damage by indirect consumption, which brings me to item two:
2) Coyotes eat micro herbivores like voles, rabbits, mice, rats, etc. This is hugely significant. Although we have a few bobcats and birds of prey here that do their own work, coyotes put an enormous dent into what would otherwise be explosive rodent populations. This is good for ecosystems then, as proliferation of any one species may exacerbate disease, encourage invasive species dispersal and so on. But it also has anthropogenic effects. Meaning the balancing act is that Coyotes may eat crops but mice eat MUCH more. About 8% of crop damage per acre comes from birds and herbivores, most of which are themselves prime snacks for tummy rumbling coyotes. Without predators then this statistic would skyrocket. A similar finding was made with the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 by the Naturalist Jean Graighead George, underling the importance of predator activity to healthy biospheres. Out terrain is in fact sparcer, harder, less of the real wild. Given my findings so far, specifically the massive number of voles that coyotes eat in every season and at every refuge, I believe the blushing tomatoes are certainly worth the trade-off.
3) Coyotes have intrinsic value, especially if you love animals, like me. Indeed, to bring back the romance of such animals too is very important, so remember that wily coyotes have those other names too, like the prairie dog, the brush wolf and the American jackal. Some might say this is a little wishy-washy but most nature-buffs can appreciate the beauty of charismatic predators. Coyotes are natives and their presence runs very deep in both human and ecological cultures.
4) Knowing what coyotes eat will lend itself to future research. For instance, if we know coyote are eating mule deer (which can transmit disease to livestock) there could be a study on how bovine-tuberculosis fluctuates in the presence and absence of predators. We could also study seed dispersal and how coyotes spread both wild and agricultural seed. These are just two examples in a hundred possibilities, dozens of which I probably couldn’t dream up, without furthering my education even more.
What’s my real point though, other than to attempt to glamorize, even aggrandize, ecological poo-collecting? I suppose I have many: the first is fight your battles. Take baby steps and stick with them. At the heart of it all, stay learning. Everyone is striving for something (Kickstarter has taught us as much) and even if ridiculous on the surface, try to find the inner merit, even if it may not be immediately so evident. So, keep learning, keep growing, even if that means playing Devil’s Advocate sometimes (as a friend reminded me at my last presentation).
Understanding coyote diet won’t rebuild the polar ice caps by 5 o’clock tomorrow, nor reverse the drought exacerbating wildfires in my own hometown. But it’s a dot of colour and significance in a much grander picture, where sustainability incorporates the wider needs of nature. That’s one hell of a painting. So I hope others will stand beside me with some able brushes and add to the picture too. Be informed in your personal interests and then go much, much further. The world’s very big and there’s much to fix. Get out your tools. Borrow from others and share. With that, I’m off to the seaside to spread the word, which I am trying at my own website too: kellymichellebaker.com
Meanwhile you can spread another word on great animal stories and back DCD’s dreams and animal stories too in crowd funding Dragon In The Post by going to Indiegogo and CONTRIBUTING TO A PROJECT
Kelly Michelle Baker
This article is under copyright to Kelly Michelle Baker: 2014. All rights reserved.
Kelly is a young ecologist in California, a passionate reader and one of the team who supported Phoenix Ark Press over Light of The White Bear and Dragon In The Post. The first picture is a Wikipedia public domain image of a Coyote in the snow, in Yellowstone. The second shows a government map of the San Joaquin Valley in California, where Kelly works. All the backers of Kickstarter projects have been invited to contribute their passion, knowledge, concerns and hopes to Phoenix Ark, working with David’s editorial help, as a little publisher throws the doors open wide.