Western Coyotes and the Drought
As many of you know, much of the West and Midwest is experiencing a drought. I've lived and trapped in fairly arid regions for the last 30 years, so I've seen the long term effects of Mother Nature's hesitation to properly supply areas with adequate moisture, but last year was a whole new ballgame for me. I visit with a lot of people throughout the year from those regions, and the drought was almost always the main topic of conversation. It has affected animal behavior beyond the usual relocating to water sources or pockets of food/prey. It seems to have altered animal behavior in ways that I normally would have thought would take place over time, rather than almost immediately.

I spend over 300 days a year in the field doing predator control work, so I'm exposed to changes in coyote habits, behavior, and movement as much as anyone, and I'm also in constant contact with others in my field. The effects of the drought seem to be widespread, with the usual exceptions. Coyotes, and their ability to roll with the punches, have always kept people in my line of work on our toes, but some of us had some real eye openers in the last year.

Litter size comes to mind first, and that's easily monitored and compared. Denning work is a top priority as a main tool in predator control efforts for many, and I am no exception. By being out there in the spring of the year, in the field constantly, you get a feel for how things are going to be the rest of the seasons. It's hard to explain, but it's kind of like seeing the geese return as the snow recedes, and the cycle starting over again. For some of us, seeing what percentage of coyotes have paired up by the first of the year is a good way to predict your coyote reproduction a few months later. Coyotes that are paired and bred will usually behave differently than non-paired animals, but this drought has even changed that somewhat.

I've checked coyote and fox for litter sizes for almost 30 years, and kept a somewhat loose number in my mind for what should be 'average'. My denning mentor, the late Vernon Dorn, always maintained a litter size of 6 was average for coyotes in the areas of Wyoming he had lived. I've personally seen roughly the same number, and have always concluded that was a safe number to throw out if someone asked, "How many pups to coyotes usually have?" I saw my personal all-time high of 14 pups in a coyote that we snared a few years ago. With the lush conditions then, litter sizes ran 6-8 fairly consistently.

The drought seemed to have an immediate effect on litter size this last year. That 6-pup average dropped down to about 5, and a lot of litter sizes of 2-3 were observed. Some coyotes that were 'dry' (no litter) acted like they were denned, and seemed to go through the motions of having a litter at times, but ended up with no signs of pups after they were taken. The constant checking of female coyote reproductive organs (fallopian tubes) is a predator trapper's main source of CSI-type info that keeps us tuned in on what is to be expected when dealing with specific coyotes. At times, only one side of the 'horns' or tubes contained any sign of pups, and that is unusual.

I visited with several people throughout the West who seemed to have a very low percentage of pup (young of the year) coyotes in their fur catch. A few said they had barely a few, and in some cases, virtually none. Tooth size accurately verifies this observation, and I got this info from people I can rely on.

The time period of active denning seemed to be spread out over an unusually longer time period than is normally expected, and we saw early pups that were moved into previously worked areas more than once. At the same time, we harvested and inspected bred female coyotes that were due to whelp a little later in the spring, like in mid-May. I told people right along that if the drought affected coyotes this way, they could expect it in other animals too. I saw litter sizes of deer respond accordingly. Interestingly, antelope seemed to fare fairly well.
Water sources became an important factor quickly as the summer lingered on, for both prey and predator. A friend of mine had a trail cam set up on a water tank for a while, and he told me that there were nightly 'pool parties' of deer, antelope, and the occasional coyote taking advantage of the water source provided by the rancher, in the form of a water tank and windmill. Not only were these animals taking their turns getting a drink, they were actually swimming in it at times.

Checking these water sources for predator sign has always been the norm for me, but even the soft ground around them seemed to be hard as a rock, and made tracking all but impossible on more than one occasion. Many times I had to follow the expected line of travel for a few hundred yards before I cut sign of any type. My kids would have made Geronimo proud several times, as they found obscure tracks that revealed a coyote's direction of travel just by the direction of the toenail marks.

Watching these water sources closely turned up coyotes that were spotted more than a few times, too. A herd of antelope 'flaring', or deer looking back over their shoulder while leaving water, gave away a lingering coyote more than once. I carry good binoculars with a shoulder harness so they're readily available, and many times I caught a glimpse of a coyote doing that "I'm going to evaporate now" trot as it left.

The heat of the day seemed to come earlier in some places too, and coyotes made use of shade as much as I've ever seen. Denning adult coyotes always have areas that they lay up, in close proximity to their pups. The pups also had huge areas of 'wash' around their dens. We attributed that to the fact that the lack of rain wasn't allowing the grass to replenish around the den locations. The fact that the grass remained yellow or worn down around the dens sites really didn't help locate them like it normally does, since most of the surrounding grass was taking on that color also. In other words, you couldn't catch a break in the denning department.

Prey species took their beating too, and some days the only rabbit sign I saw was around a cattle guard or culvert in a ranchers' yard. Many times I saw a kangaroo rat or other rodent dead in a 2-track road, or on the ground at random places. Cottontail rabbits are a main food source for predators in the West, and they seemed to disappear in a lot of areas. On the plus side we saw very few rattlesnakes after the 4th of July, and that was alright by me. But you still had to wonder where they went to.

All in all, life for most animals took on new twists and concerns. My biggest realization was the fact that it all happened so quickly, and in such a sharp contrast from the year before. Another apparent effect of the drought was later observed during the rifle deer season, when a fairly high percentage of mule deer bucks hadn't scraped all the velvet off their antlers, and antelope seemed to shed theirs earlier than normal (both my personal observations). The grouse were almost always found close to water, even more than usual. I figured that was because they couldn't get their required water from the morning dew, since there rarely was any.

That brings us back to coyotes, which are extremely adaptable, as we all know. I've watched that adaptability for the better part of my life, and I am constantly seeing a slight change or quirk of individual coyotes. I guess that's what keeps a person out there pursuing them. The drought, and then the changes after it is over, will have its effects. It will be a matter of time before we know how much. My money is on the coyote to come out the winner.