Memories of an Invisible Coyote

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"Oh, and you know that coyote the wolves killed last week was collared, too." Not forceful, not glib, but utterly devastating. At that moment I knew it was over. Over for the coyote known as 620.


I was afraid to ask, but as we stood dancing around to keep our toes warm near the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, I felt a horrible feeling of loss. There was no other coyote that it could be, the killing had taken place in what had been her territory for the last 6 years. On the slope below the Buffalo Ranch where it had taken place, we stood watching coyotes shifting and dancing more than we were while fighting off the cold of a subzero morning. Crystals of ice captured the first rays of morning providing a sparkling scene within which two coyotes, future mates, were meeting for the first time. Furtive and anxious, their getting acquainted behavior was much like that displayed by Number 21M and his new mates in the celebrated Landis footage in which 21M was first introduced to the Druid Peak Pack.


But before there was ever a Druid Peak wolf pack their was a Druid Peak coyote pack. As long as I have known them (and that’s about 8 years) their matriarch has been Number 620. I first tracked her in 1990 as a tech for Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies (Y.E.S.), a research group conducting long-term ecological studies of the coyotes of Yellowstone. I had a difficult time finding her back then, she was crafty, seemingly able to appear and disappear at will. But when I saw her I knew it to be her: she was a distinctly dark-backed coyote with light chest and muzzle markings. Her tail was full and tipped with black. Oh sure, that may fit the description for half the other coyotes out there, but wait, none of those were missing the top corner of their left ear. That was her trademark, that and an old collar she wore that functioned only during her early years when, together, she and I were introduced to the Lamar. The collar fell silent in her middle age and then well into the twilight of her life it dangled by a thread, leaking corrosion that lightly stained her guard hair. Several attempts were made to capture her and remove the decaying collar, but attempts failed. She could not be trapped and when it came to darting, she somehow became invisible.


The current Y.E.S. tech, Kim, had the distinction among legions of others to have come through the Lamar, generation after generation documenting the life and times of coyotes, to have observed 620 on her final day. Kim, a bright, young student from Bozeman, and I were watching 480, 620’s mate in her latter years, court a young, spry female. The courting was my first clue. I thought it odd he being so gaga over this other female. My suspicions naturally led into asking Kim about the whereabouts of the other Druid Peak Pack coyotes. Some had died, she said. One with an old collar had recently succumbed to Number 40F, 620’s counterpart in the wolf pack that bares the same name.


"No!" My reaction may still be echoing in some parts of the Lamar.


To me, 620 did not seem the type to fall victim to wolves. She was the consummate survivor. Too much experience, too much savvy to fall victim. I had personally witnessed her thieve copious amounts of carrion gleaned from countless wolf-killed carcasses, some under the nose of their guardians. But she was hardly dependent on carrion; I had in the past noticed her avoiding the wolves by frequenting the meadows near the Buffalo Ranch where she patiently stalked ground squirrels and voles. At that she was a master. What was more impressive about her resume and unbelievable about the circumstances of her death was that she had survived the wolf wars. No, I am not referring to the human-waged war on the wolf that nearly lead to the extirpation of wolves in the lower 48, but rather to the war of canines in the Lamar Valley that led to dramatic declines in coyote numbers. In Issue 3 of The Yellowstone Wolf Tracker, Dr. Robert Crabtree, the founder of Y.E.S., describes remarkable changes in the coyote population that have occurred as a result of wolves. I have kept track of, and on occasion seen, known coyotes killed by wolves. But not 620. When it came to close encounters with her larger canine cousins, 620, as mentioned, seemed to possess the ability to make herself invisible.


Among the other wolf effects Y.E.S. has documented is an extensive redrawing of territorial boundaries throughout the Lamar Valley. In this restructuring, the Druid Peak Pack surged west away from their namesake, Druid Peak, and toward the Buffalo Ranch where they have been the last 3 years. This got the pack out of major wolf travel lanes and into an area that with frequent human activity wolves would continue to avoid. It may be the prime coyote territory in a wolf-dominated Lamar.


The last time 620 bore pups was in 1997. About 62 days prior to her whelping I had driven up on her and 480 tied off in the middle of the road. I parked so as to block traffic until they were done. The resulting litter was raised in a den unusually close to the road, another adaptation to wolf presence. Last spring she failed to produce pups, the reason for which is unknown, though it tended to suggest her advanced age was catching up to her. With so many coyotes coming and going in the past 3 years, I was taking it for granted that there would always be one, my one, that would not be sucked into the vortex of rapid turnover within which the Lamar coyote population has fallen.


After Kim told about 620 she briefly described to me the scene. I heard briefly about it from Landis whose film of that situation I was no longer too eager to see. Apparently coyotes were everywhere, some approaching the carcass and feeding despite the close proximity of the wolf pack. Number 40, the consummate stalker, seemed unable to settle down and digest her meal. Too compelled was she with the sport of hunting coyotes. In this scenario there was a coyote that was either courageous or oblivious. In either case, she continued to feed at the carcass despite the impending danger. After several chases, Number 40 had yet to make contact with any coyotes, but she continued trying as the supply of potential victims was continually being replenished. Among the persistent was 620.


Kim could not fathom 620’s apparent disregard. Perhaps it was her eyesight, her hearing, her many years dulling the senses until she was unable to perceive even her own peril. That I could agree with and remarked at the time that I knew her to be of advanced age. Some other coyotes suffering the same fate had been recovered and subsequently found to be very old, very young, or disabled. It appears that wolves apply the same pressures of natural selection on coyotes as they do upon elk.


Finally, Kim described 620’s last moments. She was absurdly daring, perhaps even defiant, as she trotted to the carcass where she fed without the outwardly skittish behavior that marks a wary coyote. I kept thinking of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, and seeing the parallel between 620 and the old Sioux chief known as Grandfather. Grandfather peaceably contemplated his people’s ruin at the hands of the incomprehensible and unmerciful Europeans. Coming to mind in particular was the scene in which Grandfather leaves his tepee during a ruthless cavalry attack. The soldiers were slaughtering everyone in their path as they rode through the camp, but Grandfather, believing that he was invisible, walked among the unfolding tragedy untouched by the enemy.


Though perhaps on the day in question it was Number 40 cloaked in invisibility. Or not. Perhaps it was 620 that had gone among the enemy that day having decided (using Berger’s words), "it is a good day to die." In my world I could not think it otherwise, knowing 620 as I have. Her life had been long and good and there was much I learned in knowing her. Like Grandfather, 620 experienced her kind’s catharsis—a complete upheaval of the world into which she was born. Seeing her as a survivor of this leads me to understand. After staring into the vortex for many years, is not the day going to come when so compelling becomes the impulse to step off? Certainly, I think. Even for the consummate survivor.


By Nathan Varley

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