DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Mike Liane has been trapping for more than 50 years, but the veteran outdoorsman says he didn’t trap coyotes in North Dakota until the late 1980s.
“I haven’t trapped coyotes all my life because we haven’t had coyotes all my life,” said Liane, who lives northwest of Devils Lake and is president of the North Dakota Fur Takers Association. “I used to take 200 fox a month trapping and catch maybe one or two coyotes. They were almost like a trophy animal.”
That all changed with the advent of the Conservation Reserve Program in the late 1980s, Liane said. CRP simulated the native prairie that coyotes find to their liking, and populations exploded. At the same time, fox, which generally do better in farmland areas, plummeted in abundance.
“It’s been a phenomenon that came with CRP,” Liane said. “Coyotes and fox don’t get along any more than wolves and coyotes. They’re very territorial and almost wiped the fox out.
“So, you either became a coyote trapper or you didn’t trap.”
These days, Liane says he’ll kill about 150 coyotes a month, mainly by snaring, during the first couple of months of snaring season when the furs are at their prime.
North Dakota’s snaring season begins in late November and continues through mid-March.
“I do more snaring than anything — I don’t do much trapping anymore,” Liane said. “Truly, the best fur on coyotes is from about Thanksgiving week, which is when snare season opens, until the first or possibly into the second week of January. In a good year without a lot of snow, I only (snare) about six or seven weeks.”
Steady to higher
Stephanie Tucker, furbearer biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said surveys to track coyote numbers are “really crude” and monitor trends rather than population estimates. The trends show coyote numbers holding steady or slightly increasing in the past decade, despite the ongoing loss of CRP acreage, Tucker said.
“They’re an opportunist and habitat generalist,” she said. “They don’t need CRP to get what they need to eat and survive. They can make do in just about any habitat.”
The same can’t be said for deer, which Liane says are feeling the impact of declines in CRP habitat that sheltered fawns from coyotes and other predators.
Deer numbers remain low across much of North Dakota despite a series of mild winters.
“Take CRP out, and does are hiding in shelterbelts and small cover easily hunted by coyotes,” Liane said. “We haven’t had a bad winter in three or four years, and personally, I attribute the deer decline to coyote predation. Fawn recruitment is way down.”
Tucker said the Game and Fish Department hasn’t conducted extensive research on coyotes, but deer studies have shown the correlation between habitat loss and fawn predation.
“It’s more efficient to hunt tree rows and field edges — it’s easier to find prey,” Tucker said. “In central and western North Dakota where there’s more perennial habitat, coyotes don’t have near the impact on deer we would see where good deer habitat is really lacking.”
Liane says the popularity of coyote calling and hunting doesn’t have a significant impact on the population because success rates are low. Too many hunters watch outdoors TV shows and then go afield without knowing what they’re doing, he says.
“Coyotes are tougher to call than they ever have been, and part of it is the rookie callers out there educating so many,” Liane said. “It’s absolutely the smartest animal you’ll ever hunt in your life.”
Liane, who also is a taxidermist, said he once had two callers stop by with a pair of coyotes they wanted him to process and tan.
“They said they had called in about 50 coyotes in the last four or five weeks, and I said, ‘That’s pretty good, how many did you kill?’” Liane said.
Their answer: Just those two.
“Those 48 other coyotes, they didn’t get dumber based on the experience, so that’s a very common tale,” Liane said. “I’m not knocking the recreational aspect of calling, but there are a lot of things to consider in doing it right, and if you do it wrong, that animal educated is difficult to take even for the experienced trapper or snarer.”
Liane says the increase in cattails in his area also benefits coyotes. Based on what he’s seen in the field, Liane says coyote numbers might be down from five years ago, but any decrease is slight, at best.
“If they’re down more than 10 or 20 percent, I’d be surprised,” he said; further population reductions won’t come easily.
“Only a small handful like me are capable of taking 150 coyotes a month out here snaring,” Liane said. “I’m kind of the deer hunter’s best friend out here. I’ve got ranchers begging me to come and snare, and I can’t get to all of them. I have some deer hunters that beg me to come and take the coyotes. Taking a coyote off the landscape saves a number of deer.”
Tucker said the Game and Fish Department encourages livestock producers with depredation problems to contact U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, which has trained trappers and shooters across the state. Game and Fish and the state Agriculture Department the past four years also have offered a “coyote catalog” to pair hunters with landowners interested in fewer coyotes, Tucker said.
“People who participate really like it, so we’ll continue to try to make that another option” for controlling coyotes, she said.
Tucker said the increase in North Dakota’s coyote population follows a trend of natural expansion into the eastern U.S. John Erb, a furbearer biologist for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., said similar upticks have occurred in Minnesota.
Minnesota’s surveys also track trends rather than population estimates.
“Overall, in the longer term, coyotes have increased in the farmland and transition areas but have remained relatively stable in the forest,” Erb said.
He said timber wolves tend to limit coyotes in forested areas.
“Anecdotal info suggested coyotes have maybe increased a bit in the forest in recent years, likely a result of a somewhat reduced wolf population,” Erb said. “But even if that’s accurate, I wouldn’t expect it to last if deer — and hence wolves — continue to increase again.”
Tucker said coyotes, besides being adaptable, are prolific and can increase reproductive rates and have bigger litters if population densities are low and food is adequate.
Even so, carrying capacity and disease remain as potential controls.
“I don’t really expect the density to continue to go up,” Tucker said. “There’s only so much space, and so I feel like we’ve probably hit the ceiling. Numbers might come back down or start leveling off.”
Added Liane: “They’re here to stay.”