Land Between the Lakes is home to several hundred coyotes, though these small to medium-sized canines are more often heard than seen. Woodlands Nature Station's lead naturalist, John Pollpeter, speaks with Tracy Ross about these "tricky" creatures who have now colonized 49 out of 50 states.
When the last survey on the coyote population of Land Between the Lakes was conducted in 2000, roughly 350-450 coyotes were estimated to be living in the area. This is a steep increase from the previous survey in the 1980s, in which only ten coyotes were found. "Coyotes actually introduced themselves into the eastern part of the United States in the 1970s," Pollpeter explains. "[350-450 coyotes] is probably a normal population for our land area at Land Between the Lakes, but that is a surprising number that they colonized our area so quickly."
Similar spikes in coyote populations can be found throughout 49 of the 50 states (Hawaii being the one coyote-less state). "They can live in almost every environment, even an urban environment. Some of the most popular research studies on coyotes you're going to find now is places like Chicago or Los Angeles. They have no problem adapting very well to any environment, including human ones."
"They're just survivors," Pollpeter explains. "They're kind of the big animal that can handle about anything that you throw at them. In the 1920s and earlier than that, there was a real effort to destroy coyotes. They got rid of the wolf, the grizzly bear, and the cougar out West because they were afraid of them hurting the livestock. But the coyotes they were never able to get rid of because it's just an animal that is so able to adapt to almost any situation. [They've] actually thrived more than have been pushed back."
Coyotes' familiar canine appearance and signature howl often lump them in with larger red and grey wolves, but Pollpeter says they're actually much smaller. "Most of the males get up to about 35 pounds," he says. "With a female, about 25 pounds." That's about the same weight as a small border collie or a Cardigan Welsh corgi.
Due to coyotes' smaller size, they also have to hunt smaller animals. This includes mice, squirrels, rabbits, and maybe raccoons or deer. "They run in small groups," Pollpeter says, "but they're usually not considered packs. When you think of packs, you think of grey wolves -- Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and the kids -- everybody's in a pack because the food that a grey wolf would eat would be like a moose or a bison or an elk." Coyotes are scavengers, so they'll take whatever food they can find, even if it's already dead. "Roadkill is a popular thing. They will also eat a lot of plants and vegetables you would find in the forest -- hickory nuts, acorns, pawpaws, persimmons."
Despite their sizeable population, Pollpeter says LBL-goers shouldn't be concerned about coyotes crashing a campsite. "Not to say that it wouldn't happen, but you're more likely to get a skunk, possum, or raccoon that would be a little more brave," he explains. "You will when you're out camping hear coyotes, especially if they're howling."
"They do howling for a number of reasons," Pollpeter continues. "One, it's a communication amongst the members of the family, the pack. It's a way to tell other packs how strong they are. And they also do it for fun. One of the biggest misconceptions of them is when you hear them howl, it sounds like there's 50, 100 coyotes out there -- a whole bunch of them. But coyotes have this unique trick. They're known as the "great tricksters" by many Native cultures. They can actually move their voice up and down different pitches to make their numbers sound greater than they really are. So you hear eight to ten coyotes when there's actually only two."
If a camper or hiker were to happen to run into a coyote, Pollpeter says the coyotes would most likely "boogie out of there. Most coyotes don't want to have anything to do with us. Most people, when they come out to Land Between the Lakes, they see a coyote from the seat of their car, maybe in a deer stand, you might see it on a fishing bank...looking for easy, dead fish on the shoreline. Definitely from a distance, very rarely up close."