Coyotes, like the Western coyote shown above, are resourceful predators and will take advantage of small unprotected livestock. All photos by Stephanie Butzer. Click on all photos to expand.
As he drove 50 mph across his pasture, it became more and more clear to Mike Corn that the coyote he was chasing was going to make it back to the safety of the trees.
But Corn wasn't going to give up easily. The business he runs out of his ranch in New Mexico, Roswell Wool, is one of the largest wool warehouses in the country and the loss of 100 lambs in a month had hurt the company. Each dead lamb cost him $200, bringing the total loss that month to $20,000.
The felon was a lone coyote beyond its prime. It had probably slowed to the point at which it was no longer able to hunt its typical prey, like rabbits and other small mammals. Corn, the owner and manager of the ranch, was frustrated with the loss. The predator jumped fences and had already avoided traps, snares and aerial shooting.
Before he lost any more lambs, Corn recruited his neighbors to help him catch the coyote. On this afternoon was the chase. In a single moving line, the group drove 10 four-wheelers across his pasture. They scanned the grasses, jouncing in their seats and looking for signs of movement.
Halfway across the pasture, Corn spotted the predator and raced toward it. But the wiley coyote ran for a fence. Corn knew there was no way of cutting it down if it got past it, so he slid to a stop and pulled out his rifle.
"I pull the trigger at nearly the same time and guess what? I hit that coyote in a full run and he rolled several times," Corn said.
His friends congratulated him for his next-to-impossible shot, but Corn knew the problem was not solved. He had killed just one coyote in an immeasurable population. There would be another on the property the next day.
As the U.S. population pushes toward 314 million, people have expanded to regions of the country where interactions with wild animals are a daily occurrence. When coyotes and wolves start becoming a part of people's daily lives, the response is often fear and anger.
Thousands of Americans must ranch and farm not only for their own livelihood, but to provide food and clothing for millions of others. The success of ranches like Roswell Wool is generally seen to be of higher value than the maintenance of predators in U.S. ecosystems. The controversy over all of this raises fiery emotions and countless questions.
Animal advocates, especially those who not live with these predators, think the wild canines deserve to play a role and thrive and survive. Sometimes, they see things in a different light from ranchers. Wolves and coyotes are beautiful creatures. Their predatory nature is natural to them. Hunting them is wrong. Endangered species should be rescued, no matter the cost.
Steve Clark, president of the Arizona Elk Society, said such people do not understand the situation fully. "They're not hunters or hunting for sustainable meat for their family," he explained. "They're sitting in their posh New England home in Maine or somewhere saying, 'I love wolves. I want to see more wolves.' Do they even know the affect that it's having on the population of the wildlife? Do they care?"
Biologists agree predators are necessary for a healthy ecosystem. Without them, populations of herbivores and mid-level predators, such as foxes and raccoons, grow out of control. This can lead to undesirable consequences such as over-grazing on agricultural crops and national forests or mid-level predators raids on sea turtle nests.
The task, methods and purpose of predator control for coyotes and two of the world's rarest wolves have grown into a passionate argument for the rights of survival.
Catron County in New Mexico includes 7,000 mountainous square miles - perfect for wildlife. For 15 years, the people of this county have struggled to coexist with an endangered predatory animal.
"I've looked in the eyes of Catron County ranchers," said Jess Carey, wildlife investigator in the county. "I've seen them fall by the wayside. Some of these family ranchers have worked all their lives to be able to have a ranch and then they lose it because the wolves devastate their livestock."
Mexican gray wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, went extinct in the United States by the mid-1990s, but 20 years later, a captive breeding program captured five wolves from Mexico and placed them in Arizona. By 1998, 11 wolves were rereleased and today, 75 wolves remain in the wild. One of the release locations is in Catron County.
Carey said Mexican gray wolves are habituated and don't act like wild wolves. The county has records of wolves defecating on porches and approaching people at close range.
Carey said the bully in the situation isn't just the predator. It's also the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which picked the county as a suitable reintroduction location. But Carey said the county doesn't have the voting power or money to fight the department and that is why the area was chosen for the reintroduction.
"Even to this day, we still have children who wake up screaming and crying in the night thinking the wolves are going to get them because of what they've seen the wolves do on their front porch - killing their pets, killing their farm animals," he said. "It's almost like the only people that care are the ones who have to live with them."
The county has resorted to building kid cages - small wooden shelters with wired windows - at school bus stops to keep their children safe should a wolf approach. Carey said environmentalists think the kid cages are a scam to make people more frightened of the Mexican wolf, but they have been put in place to give children a peace of mind.
"To prevent a wolf-child interaction - that's all they're for," Carey said. "Nothing more, nothing less. They're there if they want to use them. Anything that sheds bad light on the wolf recovery - the pro-wolf organizations want to belittle that and make all kinds of accusations on things they know nothing about."
Lynne Nemeth is on the steering committee for the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Program in Flagstaff, Ariz.
"The federal government turns around 20 years later and says, 'Oops. We made a mistake. We shouldn't have exterminated them. We're going to bring them back on the landscape,'" Nemeth said. "The mistrust of the federal government is very, very high, particularly in Catron County."
Nemeth said the kid cages are "absurd" since there aren't any documented cases of a healthy wolf attacking a human being in the United States.
Like Carey, Sylvia Allen, the Navajo County Supervisor, is frustrated with people calling kid cages a publicity stunt since the shelters have been in place for 15 years.
"If you're a mother, do you want to take a chance that this wolf hanging around, which will attack your dog, your cat, your chickens, is not worth worrying about?" Allen asked. "You can't even trust sometimes the neighbor's dog to come in your yard and not bite your child. Yet, you're telling these people, 'You're silly for being afraid of these wolves.'"
Over the past decade, many Mexican wolf packs were released in the Gila Wilderness, part of which is in Catron County. But, data showed they left that area and went to where people live. In one instance, a female and male were released in the forest and the female went to a ranch, where she was legally shot by a landowner after attacking a cow. The male migrated to a home, attacked a calf, was trapped and rereleased, and started approaching people in Catron County. After nine incidents in two days, U.S. Fish and Wildlife sent its Interagency Field Team to dart and remove the male wolf.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program has plans to expand beyond the current recovery area, and Carey said the people who will be affected by those plans can't imagine the nightmare coming to their community.
Allen has kept a careful eye on the recovery program. Navajo County is one of the counties where the wolves would be reintroduced should the program expand. Allen is hoping the challenges in Catron County do not spill over to her community.
She sympathizes with the ranchers who are not compensated for predator attacks on livestock, also known as depredations, but she also feels sympathy for the wolves.
"They can't be a wild animal out there doing its thing," she said. "They're constantly monitored and manipulated. It's not even normal for the wolves."
The Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Program is aiming to reintroduce wolves in the Grand Canyon, away from populated areas. Nemeth, who is on the steering committee for this effort, said if the program succeeds, there will be a healthy population of Mexican gray wolves back in the Grand Canyon, where they went extinct in the early 1900s.
"There're no wolves any more on the north rim," Nemeth said. "There're no wolves on the south rim. There're no wolves around Flagstaff. There could be. There should be."
Wolves are one of the only predators capable of bringing down an adult elk. Without a predator, elk populations starve and cause massive damage to forests.
A new recovery plan, which will ensure the Mexican gray wolf does not get delisted with the gray wolves, is in the works after much influence from the Wolf Recovery Program.
But Nemeth does not believe a full recovery is possible.
Political and public support is too low to allow a healthy population to exist. Although she said she thinks they will make some sort of comeback, the wolves will have to be a heavily managed population.
"One needs to make a level of adjustment in one's thinking to allow predators," Nemeth said.
Coyote hunting along the coast of North Carolina is a delicate matter, and hunters are starting to examine their targets a little harder before pulling the trigger.
Last July, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission approved a rule allowing coyotes to be hunted at night with artificial lighting in hopes of expanding recreational coyote hunting. The red wolves have already felt the impact of the new rule.
"We have seen, this year, an increase in illegal red wolf killings by gunshot," said Kim Wheeler, the executive director at the Red Wolf Coalition. "That's the No. 1 reason for red wolf mortality. The night hunting thing just made that worse."
In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported 14 red wolf deaths, nine of which were confirmed or suspected gunshot mortalities. That's almost a 15-percent cut in the population in one year.
But the deaths didn't stop in 2013.
The New Year rang in with gunshots. A collared wolf was found shot to death in Tyrrell County Jan. 7, 2014.
The Red Wolf Coalition decided it was time to take legal action. In February, the Coalition and other conservation groups will argue in court that coyote night hunting is responsible for these deaths.
The story of the red wolf's reintroduction is very different from that of the Mexican gray wolf because the coast of North Carolina is not a suitable region for livestock. But both species started with extinction. The red wolf was first reintroduced after extinction in the wild in 1987 at North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
Red Wolf Recovery Program.
The U.S. Endangered Species Act - passed in 1973 to reverse a species' route to extinction - gives some relaxation in the protections of the red wolf. The wolf is considered a nonessential experimental population, meaning they're treated more as a threatened species than an endangered species. This was necessary as a compromise with some concerns for public safety and property issues, Bartel said. They have not received any significant complaints from landowners about the wolves.
Another relaxation of the law protected accidental shootings. If a hunter unintentionally shoots a red wolf and reports it within 24 hours, it is not considered a violation of federal regulation. But people aren't reporting the deaths, which leads to suspicions of foul play, Bartel said.
The gunshots aren't the only danger to the red wolves. Wolf-coyote hybrids are impacting the wolves' ability to produce a pure population. Rising sea levels are also threatening the red wolves since their habitats undergo severe flooding during storm surges.
"If we don't understand everything that comes with being a wolf then I think we do such a disservice to that animal," Wheeler said. "There's been a lot of research. We know a lot of things. We need to pay attention to it and not let our own prejudices and bias get in the way when we're reading all that data and scientific information and stories."
Unlike the red wolves, coyotes have learned to not only live, but thrive around humans. While this is unsettling for some people, others are content to coexist.
Joe Allen is a nationally-ranked expert in wildlife control. He receives about 20 calls a week asking for the removal of a coyote or bobcat.
But this doesn't come without backlash.
"I get called a murderer and a killer all the time because I'm for predator management," he said. "Somehow it's OK for a coyote to tear a fawn away from the mother and eat it while it's still alive. That's fine in their eyes. But a well-placed bullet or arrow to take that animal out so you can have more animals - now, I'm the bad guy."
After 30 years in the wildlife business, Randy Babb of Arizona Game and Fish still finds it impossible to satisfy both parties.
"People like wildlife," he said. "Most people love wildlife. But they want wildlife on their own terms."
In Arizona, coyotes are abundant and the state's Game and Fish department receives several calls every day reporting sightings. Even though people see them often - public complaints make up about 80 percent of the calls to Game and Fish - it would be difficult for the department to do anything about a sighting.
"Other complaints we'll get are pet attacks or an animal acting aggressively," Babb said. "Those are handled differently. If the animal is a big enough problem where we can identify it as a specific animal, we'll often take or make offers to remove it. We're most concerned with animals that are presenting a threat to human safety."
Babb said even though some people consider them pests, coyotes are part of the ecological system.