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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pennsylvania – Home to Coyotes for 75 Years

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, June 16, 2012.)
With dramatic habitat changes, and with coyotes being an opportunistic predator, it should be expected that their population would increase.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is sometimes maligned and criticized, and the coyote question is one of the perennial controversies. It shouldn’t be controversial. It’s actually easy to explain.

1938 Elk County. (Courtesy PA Game Commission)

I’ve heard people say not only that the Game Commission stocked coyotes, but that for decades it also denied evidence that coyotes were in the state. The facts say otherwise.
Few people take notice of this fact – the PGC actually publicized the existence of coyotes within Pennsylvania’s borders, and did it consistently from the 1930s to the present. The December 1938 issue of Pennsylvania Game News, the agency’s official publication, showed a photograph of a live coyote taken by a trapper in Elk County just north of Ridgway, PA. Initially, the trapper thought it was a young timber wolf, but it was proven to be a coyote. 

1941 Venango County. (Courtesy PA Game Commission)
In March 1941, the Game News published pictures of coyotes killed in Venango County during January of that year. A group of hunters discovered them in deer season, and returned to hunt them in January. One of them weighed 62 pounds.

1946 Clearfield County. (Courtesy PA Game Commission)
In 1946 a coyote was shot in Clearfield County – and for at least the third time in eight years the PGC reported coyotes were living in the Keystone State. 

1976 Westmoreland County. (Courtesy Tim Flanigan )
In 1963, the Game News carried a story titled “Coyotes at the Edge of Philadelphia,” written by Joseph Lippincott of the J. B. Lippincott Publishing Company. Lippincott was well experienced with western coyotes, and saw his first Pennsylvania coyote in the winter of 1960. Some assumed those animals to be coy-dogs, but if coy-dogs are around, a coyote had to precede them.

In 1976, a 42-pound coyote was killed by a vehicle on Route 119 in Westmoreland County. It was photographed with Wildlife Conservation Officer Tim Flanigan holding it, then analyzed at Pennsylvania State University and determined to be an eastern coyote.

These coyotes weren’t isolated individuals – the Venango County hunters and Mr. Lippincott proved that. And while it may be true that some people have heard individual PGC employees express personal doubt about the existence of coyotes, an employee of an agency isn’t a spokesperson for the agency, and may not be well informed.

All the foregoing are facts, but skeptics still ask how the population of coyotes exploded so suddenly. The likely answer is a simple predator-prey relationship. Several factors changed the landscape in the mid- to late-20th century, creating ideal habitat for prey animals and perfect conditions for predators.

During that time, family farms began to decline, and crop fields reverted to early successional forest. Then, gypsy moths began defoliating vast oak stands. As the leaf canopy disappeared, sunlight began reaching the ground and stimulating the growth of the understory, where prey species thrived. Landowners rushed to harvest the dying oaks, along with other mature trees at the same time, adding to the dense understory. The regenerating forests and brushlands provided ideal whitetail habitat. As the deer population increased, coyotes had another food source, particularly in the spring during fawn drop.

After World War II ended, the economy boomed. Suburbs swelled with new homes. Rabbits and woodchucks and other prey animals thrived around the edges of towns, giving predators even more easy opportunities. Those new suburban homes became host to family pets, but the family pet of choice was no longer Fido. It was Felix, because cats were easier to take care of when wives and mothers were entering the workforce in great numbers. And when cats wander a little too far from home, they too become easy meals for coyotes.

Changes to the landscape never happen in isolation. With dramatic habitat changes, and with coyotes being an opportunistic animal, it should be expected that their population would increase. It would be surprising if it didn’t.

So, it’s a fact that coyotes have been at home in Penn’s Woods for at least 75 years, and a very plausible explanation exists to explain their population increase. But if someone chooses to believe the coyote population came to us through artificial stocking, he doesn't have the facts, so don’t argue with him. There’s no law against being wrong.


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