My wife Mary and I have volunteered and lived during two winters at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in the remote northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. We drive 14-passenger buses, carrying seminar participants over the Lamar Valley’s snow-covered roads in search of wildlife. Wolves top the list of animals visitors want to see, and seminar instructors work hard to spot them. Coyotes are definitely second billing. But truth be told—I like coyotes as much as I like wolves. And two special days at the ranch during our first winter gave me the chance to observe coyotes in the wild and understand just why I like them so. Here’s what happened and the qualities I observed.
Just before dark, Mary and I started our dinner simmering and slipped out of the bunkhouse kitchen and onto the back porch. Earlier in the day, one of the instructors had stopped by the ranch to tell us that he had spotted a bison calf lying in the snow, and it didn’t look well. The calf was just across the main road from the ranch, close enough that from the back porch we should be able to see it with our naked eyes as well as zero in with a spotting scope.
I set up a scope, located the calf, and zoomed in on blood that dotted the snow near its head, as if sprayed by a cough or sneeze. The instructor didn’t know what had happened to the animal, and I wondered if it had internal injuries after being hit by a visitor’s car. The calf was so still that it looked dead, until the head rose a couple of inches and then flopped back onto the snow.
I saw no predators or scavengers, but when I scanned to the west, I discovered about a quarter mile away a clever coyote mingling with a bison herd. Its head was down and its ears were twitching as it listened for a possible snack: mice or voles scurrying beneath the snow after being disturbed by the grazing bison.
During lunchtime the next day, I left my mop and bucket and returned to the back porch of the bunkhouse. I had camp duty that day and the next, cleaning instead of driving, and had decided to watch the calf and see what happened. Though I knew this could be gruesome, observing would help me better understand the Lamar Valley’s food web—who eats whom. And understanding the valley is one reason I volunteer at the ranch.
I took a deep breath and peered into the scope. The calf was so flat that it looked boneless. A single coyote, attentive and cautious, and judging from its size a male, stood about a yard from the calf’s hindquarters. The coyote snuck forward, sniffing, tail down. The calf twitched, and the coyote jumped back. A moment later he inched closer, poked the calf with his right front paw. The calf shuddered, the coyote leapt. This dance continued; the three-hundred-pound calf struggling to maintain its life, the daring thirty-pound coyote working to sustain his.
The coyote moved in and ducked his head out of my view and into the tender—and vulnerable—underbelly near the calf’s rear legs. When he came back into view, he had a mouth full of fur. I gasped. He dove back in and reappeared with more fur. I thought to myself: Eventually he’s going to come up with hide and blood. Do I want to watch anymore? I pulled my head away from the scope.
I studied the porch floor and thought about my desire to understand the food web; I returned to the instrument. The coyote stood atop the calf and looked like a dog with a pull toy: head low, canine teeth hooked into hide, front and rear legs stretched forward, back arched. While pulling, he repeatedly and violently twisted his head from side to side. Even through the scope I felt his power. The calf wriggled but could not escape. The persistent coyote was trying to eat the calf while it was still alive. That made sense; once the animal died, the meat would freeze. This meal would never be warmer or softer. But understanding the efficiency didn’t make it any easier to watch.
No blood stained the coyote’s muzzle, so he hadn’t broken through yet. The calf raised its head and looked at the predator. The coyote did not move away; he just glanced toward the calf’s eyes and then back at where he would bite next. The calf’s head fell back to the snow, and a large cloud of breath, perhaps its last, rose into the cold air, soft and white against the dark fur. I released a long, sad sigh.
The coyote turned, looked toward the eager photographers that had gathered along the roadside, and started circling his prey. He stared into the calf’s eyes and then sauntered along the backbone to the rump. He poked the animal; it didn’t move. He pushed his muzzle against the calf. Still no movement. He yawned, appeared almost bored. A realist, he knew that the animal was dead and that there was no danger here, just a fine feast. There was no competition in sight, the sun was out, and the day relatively warm—about twenty-five degrees. The coyote curled up in the snow. I left.
A few hours later I returned to the scope and watched as a raven flew off, meat dangling from its beak. That single coyote—after his nap—must have opened the carcass, ate his fill, and left.
I watched two other coyotes approach. I recognized them: a big male and a smaller female, her tail ratty from mange. A mating pair, they had claimed this part of the valley as their territory. They stopped and nestled in the snow some distance from the carcass. They watched the photographers and showed no sign of moving in on the meal.
As the mating pair lay in the snow, I heard coyotes yelping from Ranger Hill, just beside the bunkhouse. I zoomed the scope in on the mating pair and waited for their reaction. They threw their heads back; their breath escaped without sound. Two seconds later their howls reached me. The Ranger Hill coyotes replied. I was in the middle of a canine call and response. I smiled and applauded softly.
A few hours later, Mary joined me on the back porch and set up her scope. I looked into mine and focused on the male of the coyote mating pair. He was eating and bloodied to his ears. He stopped, walked away from the calf, bowed down, and wiped either side of his face in the snow, painting bloody swaths. He finished his after-dinner ablutions by driving his muzzle into snow up to his eyes. Then he rejoined his ratty-tailed mate. After some sniffing and snuggling, the pair returned to the carcass and alternated short bursts of eating and glancing around the area, ever watchful of potential danger.
A few moments later, the Ranger Hill Coyotes yelped again, and I understood the mating pair’s caution. I couldn’t see the yelpers but could distinguish several voices. Mary and I held our breath as two indistinct shapes moved down Ranger Hill in the direction of the bunkhouse. If wolves, they were higher on the pecking order and would run the coyotes off. As they came closer, we determined they were coyotes.
“I’ll bet those are the ones we heard yelping a minute ago,” I said.
“Whoa! Look at that. Raised leg urination!” Mary exclaimed. Both newcomers from Ranger Hill had raised a leg, urinated, and kicked snow on it. Only alphas—male and female—raise their legs to urinate; all other pack members squat. This alpha pair was marking territory already claimed by the mating pair dining across the road. Trouble brewing!
The Ranger Hill coyotes crossed the road and begin loping toward the carcass. The lope became a sprint. When they reached the mating pair, they slowed down, lowered their heads, bared their canines, tucked their tails between their legs, and arched their backs.
“Alligator!” Mary yelled, calling this dominance move by its coyote-watcher name.
One of the Ranger Hill coyotes chased the male of the mating pair. As they raced away from the carcass, the Ranger Hill coyote bit the male’s rump. The male was the picture of fear: running full out, tail between his legs, mouth wide open, and head turned toward his pursuer.
Meanwhile, back at the carcass, the ratty-tailed female of the mating pair had strolled ten yards away and was nonchalantly washing her face, having peacefully granted the carcass to the second Ranger Hill coyote. With no serious harm to each other, the four coyotes had decided who could eat next.
Some of Yellowstone’s wildlife biologists believe that because the Lamar Valley is so small the animals that live there know one another. If that is true, perhaps the Ranger Hill coyotes knew that the male of the mating pair wouldn’t leave without a squabble. And that his mate was not real competition and could be allowed to stroll.
After the Ranger Hill coyote quit the chase, he trotted back to the carcass, head high. He joined his partner in their prize. The vanquished male sat far away, cleaning himself.
I moved the scope around and spotted the single coyote that had discovered and opened the calf. From a safe distance, he had watched the two pairs battle for what was once his meal. All five coyotes looked healthy. That fit what a veteran wolf watcher had told me: Since Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction in 1995, only smart and strong coyotes have survived.
Time spent living in coyote country has taught me that these wild animals have qualities that would benefit any human. Coyotes are clever, daring, persistent, realistic, communicative, loving, intelligent, and survivors. Coyotes deserve our protection.