One Track
One track. One perfect track that would be an example for a chart on animal tracks, that would have the caption, “This is a Coyote Track”. I stopped and stared at the track, in almost shock, but also with some relief. I stood there in the hot July sun for a minute or so, looking at it. If you’re wondering why finding a single coyote track means so much, I’ll start from the beginning.

Spring and summer predator control work around sheep/lambs is a constant battle at times, and can require using a variety of methods and tools to keep ahead of the game. This particular ranch has two areas that always seem to have a coyote den in the spring. Adult coyotes raising pups are almost always a problem. Ranchers get paid for live lambs that they put on the truck headed to market in the fall. Keeping them alive from the time they are born until shipping is our main goal.

I’d been working on this contract for a few years, when I realized that some winter preventive work here would likely pay off in the long run. So, while my partner, Dale, worked the north end of the ranch with traps and snares in the winter months, I concentrated my efforts on the south end.

Rough pockets of terrain are most often a typical location for denning coyotes in this area. A particular draw I was working is the rough stuff in this huge area of tough to navigate terrain. It has lots of escape routes and plenty of vantage points for adult coyotes to lay and watch a den, and also a bit of water here and there, even during the summer months. To sum it up, a perfect area for coyote dens year after year. The area also has some sharp cut bank washes in it, so it’s not the best for ATV travel, so it took a few trips in on foot to find some of the natural crossings.

I’d been in this area hunting dens several times, so I knew the lay of the land. When moving through the draw I’d simply cross the bottom by jumping the narrow spots, or I crossed where a cow trail had been made. These places were usually where some silt or dirt was left from spring runoff, so tracking conditions were good. Over time, I found a route that allowed me to get into the heart of the area, and I laid out a decent line of traps and also worked in some snares in the sparse brush patches. It always seems that by Christmas, a few coyotes will move into that rough terrain from other areas, and when those are taken, a few more eventually replace them. It’s a constant battle, but if I do the work and keep equipment working, it pays off down the road.

The crucial time to get some preventive work done is late winter, when the coyotes are pairing up with intentions of breeding and raising a litter. In the predator control world, the months of February, March, and April are key. This area is a textbook example of this, and I wish more areas that I work were this cut and dried.

Every winter, I can use the same earth anchors that I’ve left from previous years and in some cases I even use the large holes that I’d made with a big auger or tile spade in years past. A few of the spots are coal banks that are prominent and blow clean of snow during the winter months, so they get set up with traps even if I don’t see a track there. I’ve done this long enough to know that coyotes will eventually hit bare spots that stand out during periods of snow, so I’ve just made it a practice to set up, “just because”.

Old locations that have bones left at them, or perhaps have made a catch are great places to look for sign, like a dropping or two, or tracks so they get a quick look too. The smells left behind can create a point of interest for coyotes in the summer time, and any sign is noted and evaluated. I’ve mentioned in previous articles about keeping a running inventory of what there is in the area, and this is an example of how.

This particular ranch runs a lot of yearling cattle in the summer, so during that time, trail snares are out of the question. I usually pull any traps when the pastures are loaded with cattle too. Sure, there are a few spots that you might pick up a coyote in a foothold, but being in the area on a UTV moves the cattle away from water, which is a big no-no during the hot summer months. And, if anyone has tried to work around a few hundred yearling steers, you’ll know what I mean; they’re just a plain nuisance. Because there are sheep in close proximity, we still work the area constantly, by methodically monitoring historic denning areas, with sounds (howling)and sight (glassing).

At least twice a summer I hike the mile or more along the backside of a chain of sharp jagged hills that are just east of this rough country; early in the morning with the sun coming up at my back is my preference. Being at the right level, the sun can really shine on a coyote, making it easier to spot. Sometimes you only catch a quick glimpse, but that’s all you need.

A lot can be learned by glassing, and I can’t say enough about the value of it. By watching where a coyote travels, if it’s lined out and possibly back to a den, or just wandering around from gopher holes or whatever, it’s all important when you are trying to come up with them. And, that brings me back to where I started the story.

The rancher lady had reported hearing several coyotes to the south, in mid-summer. She hadn’t found any lambs killed, but in sheep country, just knowing that there were multiple coyotes in the general area deserves immediate attention. I was confident that our winter and spring efforts had left that spot without a single track to be found. We figured a new family had moved into the area to take advantage of the water and the rough terrain. And, a few prairie dogs and lambs close by was no doubt a factor too. Anyway, we planned a coordinated aerial hunt, with some locating in conjunction, and we’d come up with a portion of the family group the first morning. The remainder of the family group were very mobile, as they were past denning stages, so they moved that night. I knew that this was a game changer so to speak, as sometimes you only get one good chance at coyotes before they learn and change their pattern, and this was one of those times.

When my dog, Copper, barked a few times at 3 the next morning, I wasn’t mad, although I’m sure our neighbors don’t really like it. He’s a working dog, and he’s tuned in to summer time control work, and he seems to know when it’s time to get up and moving. A cup of coffee later, I had him loaded up and we were headed north.
We got to a part of the ranch that was just east of the chain of hills that I mentioned earlier just as a slight light was starting to show up in the east. Copper knows that the GPS collar means calling is on the agenda for the morning, and his tail was going a mile a minute when I put it on him. When I put my pack on and took my rifle and shotgun out of the back seat, he took note of which direction we were heading, and he ranged out 100 yards ahead of me. I don’t mind him working out ahead of me at all, and he looks back and checks on me as often as I check on his whereabouts. If I lose sight of him, I can simply turn on the handheld GPS and check on him. If he hits a fresh coyote track and decides to follow it, I can monitor him and try to determine if he’s decoying the coyotes back to me, or simply making a big sweep of the area.

Copper seemed to know where I was headed, and he stayed a few hundred yards ahead until I got close to the far end of the hills I wanted to use as a vantage point to call from. He was already scanning the area intently when I got there and picked a spot to set up to call from.

I used some lone howls, and after a ½ hour of glassing a mile or more radius, I finally spotted a coyote south of me a mile away, moving fairly fast to the southeast. I didn’t get to watch it very long, but I was convinced that it was an adult, and it wasn’t too far from where we had got into coyotes the day before. I’d like to report a successful ending to that morning, but it wasn’t in the cards, and it was only the beginning of a few more trips to the area on following days.

I skipped a few days during that week, and went to other ranches to check equipment and locate and attempt to call in other coyotes. I’m a firm believer when it comes to not pressuring problem coyotes too much, because they can move again and you’re back to square one.

About a week went by with no lambs killed, so I figured that the remaining coyotes had moved farther away, and I knew my search area had to be larger. So, when I loaded my pack the third morning, a few extra bottles of water went in it before I headed out. The sun was powerful, and it hadn’t cooled down a whole lot the night before, so I knew it would be a hot one, typical of summer coyote work.

I’d make a slow 3-mile arc through the area, checking any likely crossing spots for tracks, watching for birds that might indicate water puddles, and glassing ahead at all times. A slow, tedious approach, but I love that that type of hunting!

I’d checked out the last cow trail crossing that I knew of, with no luck, and I was racking my brain as to where the coyotes could have gone to. I was in sight of my pickup when I went to step over a deep trail made by cows going to water over several years, and I spotted it out of the corner of my eye, the single coyote track.

I studied carefully from a few feet away, careful not to step in the trail. It had been made when the dirt was slightly muddy, which had to have been 3 nights before, since that was the only rain we had. The track was slightly on the small side, and obviously not the large male dog coyote that I was looking for, rather it was narrow and smallish. I couldn’t determine the length of the stride, because it was one single track, but I concluded that it was either an 80% grown, young-of-the-year, or a yearling.

I walked along the trail for a while and finally found a few more tracks. It appeared to be alone, and had only been there once, or at least that appeared to be the case. Hard, sunbaked ground is hard to track in at times.

I went back to the pickup, and drove the UTV back in the spot and set five traps in about a 100-yard area. Three of the sets were made right at the edge of the trail that I’d found the track in, and the other two were close to another cow trail that ran parallel to it. I did that in the anticipation that there might be another coyote with the one that left the track, if and when it returned. The yearling cattle had been moved out of that pasture, so I wasn’t concerned about that, but there were a lot of deer in the area. I wanted to have a few extra sets made in this spot, because hey, I’d walked probably 10 miles over the course of several days to find one track!

I also ventured a mile or two west of that spot. Even though I couldn’t find a track or dropping, I chose a couple of spots that I knew from experience coyotes would eventually funnel through. Both of those spots got two sets each, and I left the area that day confident that the effort would pay off.

A few days later, my buddy told me that he’d picked up an old male coyote in a set on a small prairie dog town, just north of where I’d set up that day. I told him that he’d no doubt had caught one of the ones we were after, but it still didn’t match up with the track I’d seen, at least by my guesstimate.

A few days later, I was happy to see a coyote had found its way back through the area, and found a set I’d made. It turned out to be an old, dry female, which matched the track I’d found. I was happy to come up with that coyote, and when we factored in what we’d previously taken there, I felt that we’d probably covered all the bases, and eliminated potential problems before they happened.
Was it a frustrating week and lots of walking in the hot summer sun? Yes.

Was it worth it? Yes.

And to think that it all came about from one single track.