Historical Perspective

Ancient Aztec stonework honoring Coyote

Coyote’s name, “Coyotyl” is unique because it was given to him by the ancient Aztecs; and its apt meaning ~ “The Trickster.” However, when the Spaniards invaded Mexico, they altered coyote’s name to suit their Spanish tongue, and so it became, “Coyote”

Coyote is America’s native wild dog, living nowhere else on the planet, but North and Central America

Coyote has lived on our continent a very long time, over a million years, and archeological digs have found the ancient remains of coyote from New Brunswick to California. So it appears that Coyote has possibly been trotting about all over our American continent, adapting to the myriads of changes that have taken place on the earth all this time…long before our species found its way to the American continent.

However, when the Europeans came to North America, coyote was found, for the most part, only in the central grasslands, anywhere from present day Illinois west to the Rocky Mountains, north into Alberta Canada and south through Mexico.

Frank Dobie in his classic book, The Voice of the Coyote, relates that when the first Europeans met Coyote they found that this “prairie wolf”, as they called him, had no fear of them. This attests to the relationship our Native people had with Coyote ~ one of mutual respect and understanding. Fear was not the basis of their relationship, and therefore coyote had no reason in those first encounters to fear the Europeans.

Coyote also shared the land with fellow wild canines, the wolf, and fox. These carnivores lead complex social lives, with strict parameters regarding behavior within their immediate family and toward the other wild canines.

© Jerry Mercier

Territorial defense plays an important role in population regulation and survival among carnivore species and within a species itself. So before Europeans came to our continent, wolf, coyote and fox kept each other’s populations in balance by means of territorial defense.

But after our European ancestors slaughtered the entire wolf population of the lower 48 states by the mid 1920s, large areas across the continent where wolves once lived, were then open for coyotes to inhabit. As a result, coyotes expanded their range throughout North America.

To give you just a little idea of the mass slaughter of carnivores and their prey that took place, 80,000 wolves were poisoned, trapped, shot and tortured in Northern Montana alone between 1882 and 1918. Also 31,000,000 Bison were slaughtered between 1868 and 1881.  Bison were an important prey of the wolves.

And yes, there was widespread slaughter of coyotes as well ~ poisoned, trap, shot and tortured; but they are so resilient, and adapt to drastic change including the disruption of their social lives, that they survived. And they continue to survive the ongoing widespread slaughter of their species by the federal government’s predator control and private individuals today.

Coyote in trap

In addition to the extermination of the wolves, extensive clearcutting of our nation’s forests from Maine to California transformed the landscape, and created a setting where many of coyote’s preferred prey ~ rodents ~ thrived.

With the landing of the Europeans on the American shores, wolves were systematically and rapidly killed all throughout Eastern North America, to a point that we know very little of their genetics today. So  when coyotes were first reported in Maine in the 1930s and 40s there were many empty niches to fill. And by the late 1960s they had become established in those once empty niches.

As mentioned earlier, Paleontologists have found the remains of coyotes in cave deposits and in some Native American village sites on the east coast dating from the end of last Glacial Period up to a thousand years ago. Therefore this native wild canine, in fact, has returned.

Photo: Rich Bard

Maine’s historical Keystone carnivore, the wolf, has been absent for 150 years from our ecosystems, and as a result our landscapes have become impoverished, often in ways we cannot observe.

With the return of Coyote, a Keystone carnivore now resides in the landscapes of Maine once again. And the more stable our coyote population becomes, the healthier our landscapes will be.