Historically, cougars, wolves and black bears shared the status of top predator with humans in Middle Tennessee. Over the last few centuries, we systematically cleared the forests and killed off most large mammal species in the Eastern U.S. The current population of red wolves in Tennessee stands around 9 individuals in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park descended from animals reintroduced since 1991.
In the latter part of the 20th century, our society decided to start protecting more of these natural resources. Environmental consciousness came into vogue, the Endangered Species Act was passed, bounties on predators were removed, eastern forests began to re-grow, and wildlife has been slowly returning to its former range. But nature is dynamic, and things are not returning exactly as they were.
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are members of the dog family, capable of interbreeding with both domestic dogs and wolves. Coyotes previously lived in the western half of this country, but since the extirpation of our local carnivores, coyotes have steadily moved eastward to fill in the role of top predator.
Coyotes are mainly active from sunset to sunrise. A pair may stay together for life, mating in late winter and digging underground burrows to raise the pups. Their food source is quite variable, but in the wild, it consists primarily of small rodents. Though an individual weighs about 30 pounds, sometimes coyotes will work together in groups to hunt big prey such as deer. They'll also scavenge foods ranging from blackberries to apples to birds. I've even seen a coyote scat containing a pimentoed-olive, with the pimento still in the olive.
With their variable diet, coyotes have proved exceedingly adaptable to many habitat types, including cities. In Chicago, Boston, New York, and now Nashville, coyotes have come to help keep herbivore populations in check. But the other resident top predators, ourselves, may not always appreciate the competition.
Although coyotes are typically shy of humans, confining their activity to times when we are asleep or to places we don't frequent, small dogs and cats wandering the woods at night are a different matter. If we make responsible choices about our pets, then we should face few troubles.
We can keep small dogs leashed or closely attended by humans (as local laws require) and cats indoors (as veterinarians recommend), especially at night. Such action will help keep pets safe from cars, diseases and other animals while easing the fears of ornithologists concerned with the damage that outdoor pets are doing to migratory bird populations.
These are the choices we face. Personally, I sometimes let my cat explore the woods around my house during the day time. I recognize that she is enjoying her life that much more, so perhaps the risk is worth the tradeoff. After all, she too, like us and like the coyotes, is a creature willingly participating in the cycle of life.
To read more, go to www.WestMeadeConservancy.org .