Sunday, November 8, 2009


The tragic and untimely death of the beautiful and talented Canadian folk musician Taylor Mitchell, 19, of Toronto reminds us once again that we are but fragile and transient visitors on this planet. Taylor was engaging an innocent daytime foray, hiking solo along on the Skyline Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia, Canada when she in a so called “unprecedented and a totally isolated incident” was inexplicably mauled by two coyotes. Canadian Conservation Officers and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) hunted and put down two of the animals and killed a third large male who appeared human habituated and was demonstrating aggressive behaviors.

In a previous Might of Right post Critters In Our Midst (3/21/09) we noted the marked resurgence and expansion of many native species including the bobcat that have been slowly reclaiming their former territories and all to the chagrin of the human beings that now live in those areas. The mass slaughter almost to extinction of native fauna that was the mantra of a less sensitive (“brutal and heartless”) population a century ago has now turned to a more tolerant society, yea, even sponsorship of native species that has allowed the bobcat, bear, mountain lion, wolf, raptors and others to regain at least part of their former range. It has artificially allowed the wily and opportunistic coyote to expand well out of its traditional range. And that ironically puts them in direct conflict, competition if you will, with many of those more highly educated, tolerant and “civilized” members of Homo sapiens that seemingly, instinctively allowed for that rebirth.

The other day a young female red tailed hawk slap dab in the middle of densely populated far north Dallas took a gray squirrel out of the oak tree in the front yard, dispatched it on the lush St. Augustine lawn and after an interval of about ten minutes flew off with squirrel (expired) in tow all to the horror of the other squirrels in the tree (especially one) and the chagrin of a fancy Lady in a flowery shirt and white pedal pushers walking two small white poodles down the sidewalk. The point is that nature in all its primal state is being engaged all around us. Like it or not the dance of life and death and the balance of nature is integral to all lives including our own. We are all connected, an integral part of that choreography and the wildlife cited heretofore are our neighbors. Perhaps we/they need to be closer still…

Residents of other north Texas communities like Plano and Frisco who have been complaining about the local wildlife to local animal control authorities have been dismayed with their response: a hands-off, part of the landscape approach. Collin County, Texas authorities have been trying to educate residents on how to assume more responsibility for their children and pets. It seems, and rightfully so, that the message is all about coexisting with the native wildlife. That same approach appears to be the mantra throughout the United States with the assumption that wildlife was here well before we moved in and, yes, they have a right to remain here.

I remember several years ago in Huntersville, North Carolina where the Catawba Valley Scottish Society’s herd of West Highland cattle (those hairy coos) at the historic Rural Hill Farm was thought to be in danger by bands of marauding coyotes that had taken down scores of Angus calves on a neighboring, much larger farm. We all prepared to engage the enemy with some of the more stalwart male, testosterone-infused members unpacking our rifles and readying ourselves for a vigilante coyote tour of our 265 acres. That call never came. It seems that the “ladies” in the herd have an incredibly strong protective maternal instinct and armed with those very impressive horns used them against several coyote interlopers whose carcasses were proof of the cattle’s ability to protect themselves. There were no worries after that.

Maybe, just maybe, the restoration of the balance of nature might be the answer to control populations of those very few hybrid, human food-conditioned, maybe diseased but definitely Human-habituated and opportunistic canines and other predator populations that can present a danger to Man.

The use of guarding animals like livestock guarding dogs (LGD) is an ancient practice in existence for millennia (2,500 to 9,000+ years) in Europe and Asia (and now the US and Canada) where they protected sheep and other types of livestock. We have also seen donkeys and llamas used effectively as guarding animals. So, while LGD and other guard animals may help protect hearth and home to include pets and children in mostly suburban/farmland/ranch situations, we obviously can’t take our very large LGD or donkeys or llamas with us while we go hiking. In fact if you take a dog on the trail with you it might even attract attention and be perceived as a threat by wolves, coyotes or bears. The majority of national parks do not allow dogs on any hiking, walking or backcountry trails.

We could allow for the reintroduction and recovery of other canid populations like the Gray Wolf that places the coyote at the top of their hit list and would substantially reduce coyote populations like they have in Yellowstone (by 50%) and Grand Teton (33%).

Reintroduction of the Red wolf in Tennessee wasn’t successful but fared much better in northeastern North Carolina. Hybridization with Coyotes, however, appears to be the primary threat to the Red Wolf’s survival with (not so ironically) hybridization the main factor in the Red Wolf's initial demise in the wild. Some folks think this makes an even greater case for a more widespread reintroduction of the Gray Wolf though some might offer that we are just trading one “problem” for another.

We can probably take other precautions while on the trail that would allow our survival in case of a confrontation. Those options might include carrying a weapon like a gun (pistol or rifle) and Congress has been lately debating that issue. In reality they probably wouldn’t help if stowed in your pack and weapons in national parks and wildlife areas except by those authorities licensed to carry them would probably only get you in major trouble. How about a stun gun? They appear to be legal in most US states (with limitations) though they are illegal in Canada especially Parks Canada where Taylor Mitchell was attacked. They appear to also be illegal in US National Parks.

Some Friends have suggested the use of wasp spray with its concentrated, long range spray as a defense against a predator, human or bear/coyote/wolf/dog though the thought that this might provoke them all the more entered my mind. also reflected that wasp spray is probably illegal as a defensive (or otherwise) weapon. The label on at least one product states that “It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.” Bottom line: It’s not legal for other than its intended use – killing wasps. Apparently these insect sprays use pyrethrins which apparently pose a greater danger to humans than initially thought. Now this generally assumes use against a human being and not a dog, coyote, bear, etc. Check with your attorney and proceed with caution.

Another option is either Bear or Dog Pepper Spray (not the old Mace) which does come in models that offer long and accurate concentrated sprays that appear to be the equal or better than wasp spray (up to 40 feet). That said, US Federal law prohibits the carrying, possession or use any form of bear spray, pepper spray, mace or any other irritant gas spray in US National Parks? We have seen this law overridden by superintendents such as Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott who has encouraged its use as a non lethal self defense alternative. Apparently when pepper spray is marketed as a wild animal repellent, then the possession and use thereof is legal when locally approved.

In Canada bear sprays are regulated by Health Canada and their Pest Control Products Act. Health Canada has requested that a seemingly uncooperative Canadian Customs consider bear spray as a pesticide (not a weapon) and ignore the $10 exception limit. Apparently Canadian Customs has acquiesced. So, pepper spray marketed as a bear deterrent by the manufacturer and so declared will pass through Customs though it would appear far more hassle free to just buy the product in Canada.

If you are going to use Pepper Spray make sure that you carry it so you can quickly retrieve it. Pepper spray buried deep in your pack does little good when a predator is attacking you. Hang it on your pack or your belt and when you are approaching an area that could present danger, have it ready to use.

Some folks have recommended the use of strobe lights and siren/electronic noise devices (Ah Wilderness!) which have been somewhat successful and probably does nothing more than startle the predator. But, that’s OK if it gives you time to make good your escape.

Well, after all that I guess that the ideal scenario is to avoid placing ourselves in jeopardy and the necessity to employ a defense whether it be pepper (bear/dog) spray, stun guns, wasp spray, etc. I suppose that’s the tail wagging the coyote for that would mean cloistering ourselves in our homes and not engaging life. No matter what we do short of exterminating these animals will prevent their ultimate and continuing recovery and expansion. The coyote is an evolutionary work in progress and I have asked myself whether they could have progressed to this degree had the Gray Wolf survived. I don’t think so.

It would appear that many species (natural or reintroduced) will continue to habituate themselves to Man and these incidents will likely continue and even escalate in frequency. A cursory review of the Internet shows Coyote–Human incidents and interactions underreported and certainly on the rise (more later).

Our unfortunate reality is that while we have been sleeping, the rules have changed. We can no longer escape and strike out into the wilderness to cleanse ourselves - to regain our sanity - to soothe our souls from the monotony and tedium of our everyday work worlds without taking such heroic precautions that it potentially demeans the intent of that effort. Heck we can’t even walk, run or bike on city or suburban trails without a higher vigilance and making provisions for self defense in our violent and many times desperate society. If one of our heretofore mentioned canids doesn’t present a threat, then perhaps a fellow Homo sapiens might. The age of innocence is gone forever.

We can’t count on the Wilderness as an idyllic Thoreau-inspired haven. Our Wilderness areas are now highly managed and are just barely surviving the encroachment of Man. In fact, the ultimate recovery of the wilderness may very well be the harbinger of our own ultimate demise. Anybody for an afternoon of hunting and gathering? The anthropologist in me says that something’s gotta give and that something is probably us. My early responsible experiences in the wilderness are no longer reality, instead the memories of a bygone past – and not a pleasant entertainment – rather, a startling reality that should scare the hell out of all of us. We need to restore some balance…

Taylor was an environmentalist, “passionate about animals” and she strode into a popular Canadian national park with youthful exuberance and misplaced confidence in and naïveté of that environment. We mourn her passing and pray that her death will mark the adoption of more mature perspectives about our native wildlife and our environment as a whole. Taylor Mitchell’s Mother, Emily, when she was made aware of the intent to kill the coyotes involved in her daughter’s killing commented, “'Please don't, this is their space.' She wouldn't have wanted their demise, especially as a result of her own.” She continued, "We take a calculated risk when spending time in nature's fold -- it's the wildlife's terrain."

While true, I don’t completely share this incredibly generous and compassionate plea. Those coyotes appeared to be well beyond the pale and should have been put down as they would have likely repeated those behaviors (see Dr. Geist below). When a species like coyotes lose their fear and wariness of Man and become conditioned to our presence that generally spells trouble for them and us.

I also still wonder if this is really, “their space” and just another human manipulated aberration and species outside their native range in the same class as the Russian boar in the southeastern United States, the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes, the gray squirrel in Europe and the starlings in New York. For those of you out there that denounced the killing of the coyotes, just remember they blatantly and without provocation attacked Taylor while other hikers were nearby. We don’t need to be Kum By Ya stupid when a situation is clearly out of control.

This attack appears to be part of a classic, predictable, deliberate targeting process used by wolves and coyotes and we all need to be aware of this habituation-exploration model. The Might of Right directs your attention to Dr. Val Geist, retired wildlife biologist and Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada who has identified seven classic stages
leading up to attacks on people by wolves and coyotes. Dr. Geist had determined via interviews with hikers and Cape Breton National Park staff that the coyotes of Cape Breton National Park were already in the latter phases of this process with the end stage being attacks on Humans. So, I ask, were warnings posted and hikers carefully educated on the dangers? I don’t know the answer but pray that all cautions be taken from this point on whether it be on Cape Breton Island or in Frisco, Texas.

Frankly, we created this problem and that becomes apparent when we realize that recovery and reintroduction are quite different than expansion. In the mid 1800’s the range of the coyote was primarily limited to the American West and Northwest including open prairies and grasslands, sagebrush lands and brushy mountains As we have noted, the larger and more powerful Gray Wolves primarily occupied the forests and kept coyote populations well in check.

The highly adaptable and enterprising coyote, however, has evolved in the Americas by taking full advantage of human activities and that especially includes the substantial reduction of Gray Wolf populations to expand their range throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America. They are now found in all their traditional haunts as well as forests, deserts, islands (including Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland), agricultural areas, and most urban environments. They have mated with dogs and gray/red wolves and may eventually upset that DNA applecart. On Cape Breton with its limited prey populations the coyote has already put the Canada lynx, rock vole and Gaspé shrew in jeopardy.

The presence of coyotes on Cape Breton Island was but the harbinger of their continued migration that now includes Newfoundland and Labrador. Seems that the coyote arrived there in the mid nineteen-eighties from Cape Breton by crossing the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the winter ice pack. We suspect that the coyote will do well in Newfoundland (no Gray Wolves) while Labrador may be the northern most migration possible as they will most certainly run into a healthy Gray Wolf population and the southern most migration of polar bears.

It appears that we have three options here. The total extermination of the coyote or any predator species that poses a risk to man, the present coexistence/management scenario or an apathetic comme ci, comme ça stroll where we let it all go and trip the light fantastic back to our primal past….and let an altered nature take its course. Of course, that will probably happen whether we consider it an option or not. Whatever option we engage, an increased vigilance (no
“Sunnydale Syndromes” please) and understanding of our environment is absolutely necessary.

I do concede and agree that the wilderness and the rest of our planet belong to all forms of life. While Taylor’s passing may prompt us to responsibly recalculate our environmental paradigms and understand the ultimate consequences of our presence on this planet, I am reminded of two Friends who successfully traversed a long stretch of the Appalachian Trail and made calculated provisions for their safety and protection against predators – human and canid. It was nickel plated.

The next time I hit the trail I might opt for a Cromack and my (imaginary) pet Gray Scottish Wolf Badb Catha of Ackergill to wit,
A far croonin' is pullin' me away As tak I wi' my cromack an wolffis to the road.

Rest in peace, Taylor Mitchell and God Bless You.


Ned Buxton

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