Coyotes are one of the only other Tahoe/Truckee mammals adaptable enough to live in as many states as humans. Though, that comparison may compliment humans more than coyotes. While we import our food and fuel from the lowlands; coyotes make do with just what they find.
Along the banks of the Truckee River, and in the woods beside its tributaries, there are very few large mammals who can abide human neighbors. Coyotes are one of the exceptions – one of the few species in the Truckee River watershed who have managed to maintain their numbers in the face of this relatively recent arrival, the modern human.
In the 1960s, a researcher from Berkeley conducted a study of the coyotes in the Sagehen Basin, north of Truckee. He learned that the canines faced few threats as long as they remained in the basin – which is basically uninhabited by man – but that 80 percent of coyotes who wandered beyond its confines were wiped out by cars or traps, or other man-made means. Yet, coyotes are in no danger of decline in the Truckee River watershed. There’s a good chance that when enough food is available, there’s a group of coyotes inhabiting each five square mile patch of woods in the watershed. They range through all elevations as well. Folks have seen coyotes swimming in Lake Tahoe and noticed tracks at 10,000 feet of elevation – all this in spite of us.
In large part, coyotes can maintain their numbers because they can digest just about anything that fits in their mouths, and they’ve generally got the gumption to do so. In the Truckee River watershed, their diet mostly consists of Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels, Douglas Squirrels, Meadow Mice, Flying Squirrels, and others rodents; however, coyotes also relish grasshoppers and pine needles, carrion of all sorts (including coyote), fruits and veggies wild and domestic, lizards, frogs, and any birds they can catch. Kris Boatner, a wildlife biologist, called them ‘opportunivores,’ quipping that the single strongest determinant of the coyote’s diet is availability.
Their pragmatic palette often brings them into conflict with man. Mike Smith is the Federal Trapper for Sierra, Plumas, and Nevada counties. Most of Smith’s calls come from the cattle ranchers of the Sierra Valley and the shepherds who lead their flocks south toward Prosser in the summer. Both groups fear the depredation of their stock by coyotes, though researchers at Sagehen have said that such losses are often overstated.
In the communities near Truckee and Lake Tahoe – where folks live a suburban lifestyle – coyotes adjust their diets accordingly. Many a turned-over trashcan has been blamed on the bears when coyotes were the culprit. Bird feeders become coyote feeders when fallen grains attract rodents, and bowls of dog kibble left on porches prove a convenient source of calories. Often a pet cat will disappear, followed quickly by other cats in the neighborhood until humans learn to keep their pets indoors. At which point the coyote will simply move on to whatever other source of sustenance he happens to chance upon.
The digestive ability of the coyote is just one of many traits that allows such adaptability. Many sources speak of the curiosity and cunning of coyotes, their reproductive habits, and their hunting skills. Over the millennia that man has known him, the coyote’s resourcefulness has been bandied about in myths and religions. Men have looked at the resilience of a scrawny individual or of a group, and extrapolated an idea of illusion and mutability, an idea of a creature who can weather misfortune and reappear tomorrow. The word ‘coyote’ derives from the Aztec, ‘coyotl.’ The Aztecs said that one of their most powerful deities often took the form of a coyote. The name of the god can be translated as, ‘smoking mirror.’
As Mike Smith says it, ‘They will be here when we ain’t.’ The ranchers of the Sierra Valley have still another way of putting it: ‘They will be here to piss on our bones.’
Much thanks to Mike Smith, Federal Agent of the Department of Agriculture; Kris Boatner, Wildlife Biologist of the Truckee Ranger District and Tahoe National Forest; and Jeff Pylman at the Nevada County Department of Agriculture for their aid with this chunk of words.