Whoa, man. Whoa!
Say “federal hunters” at your local watering hole and you’ll trigger a lot of quizzical looks, as people picture everything from hot-on-the-trail IRS agents to special prosecutors. But in fact, today’s federal hunter is just a pickup-driving, helicopter-flying westerner with one very unique job: He’s on the payroll to hunt down coyotes that kill livestock.
Glynn Riley, 63, of Brownwood, Tex., is acknowledged by his peers as the best. He doesn’t hide his pleasure that he’s living his boyhood dream, and he frowns when he speaks about possible retirement. He’s a truly humble man, with a cowboy hat, a soft Texas drawl and mountains of respect from the local ranchers, who call him “Wolf Man,” a title he earned in the early ’70s when he trapped the last of the red wolves in southeastern Texas, sending them to zoos.
“I have the utmost respect for the coyote,” says Riley as he leans over an almost indecipherable track in the dust. “The wolf, he’s easy to catch. But the coyote, he’s a versatile and intelligent little rascal. People wonder how the coyote got across the Mississippi. I say he weighed his prospects and hitched a ride in the back of a tractor trailer.”
Riley pronounces “coyote” as two harsh syllables, not the three-syllable coy-o-tee version that calls forth visions of a wimped-out-cartoon animal helpless before the antics of a roadrunner. He admits that he sometimes feels like “the last Indian watching the last buffalo run over the hill,” but in actuality, “that’s just not the case,” he says. “There are more coyotes today than I’ve seen all of my 38 years with WS. And they’re causing more problems than ever before.”
With the WS program funding under siege by some members of Congress–including Representatives Charles Bass (R-NH) and Peter Defazio (D-OR)–and political groups, such as Taxpayers for Common Sense (a political think tank in Washington, D.C.), and with coyote populations at an all-time high, Riley is more like the last Indian running from a stampede.
The House of Representatives voted 229 to 193 last June to cut the program by $10 million but then reversed itself (232-192) the next day. The federal budget for the western predator control program stands at $15,580,000. States and counties together match the federal outlay with money through taxes on livestock sales and other funding.
Critics are persistent, however. They have labeled the program “cowboy welfare,” and argue that it benefits only a “few western ranchers.” Wildlife Services employees have a different view. The program was established in 1931 to do one thing: kill problem coyotes. But it has since grown and changed with the times. Wildlife Services now works in all 50 states dealing with various wildlife-related problems. Its missions include working with airports to keep birds from damaging airplanes, helping farmers prevent blackbirds from eating their crops and discovering solutions to whitetail deer overpopulation problems.
“The program has been on the defensive ever since I can remember,” says Riley as the wrinkles around his eyes tighten. “And at first glance we do seem a little archaic. But in reality, with record-high wildlife populations, we’re needed more than ever. People don’t understand that coyotes can put ranchers out of business.”
For example: In 1995, cattle ranchers lost 69,350 head to coyotes–that’s a $21.8 million hit. In 1994, a total of 368,050 sheep and lambs were taken by coyotes, worth another $17.7 million.
Eric Gese, a biologist at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., says the amazing success of the coyote is due to many factors, citing in particular the elimination of the coyote’s arch-nemesis, the wolf, the crash of fur prices in the late 1970s and abundant game.
Those who know the coyote best, however, attribute his success to his intelligence.
Riley sways back and forth on his cowboy boots, smiles like he’s confessing to a weakness of character and says, “More than a few have been hard to catch. One particularly notorious coyote we named the `Bingham Turkey Killer.’
“Every May the Bingham brothers would put 50,000 turkeys out onto the range. They kept dogs with them and kept them in close at night where they could respond to trouble, but one year a little female coyote sneaked in and killed 98 the first night. I checked it out, but I couldn’t see how she had done it.
“The next night she was back and killed 50 more birds. So the Binghams tried bright lights to scare her off. That worked for two nights, but then she had lamplight to dine by. So they tried loud music, and two nights later she came back and had light and music to dine by.
“Finally, I found one track in the dirt a quarter-mile away. So I put a trap right there. Caught her. But we never did figure out how she got in.”
Riley has been happily married for 42 years and has a son, David, who works “in one of those big shiny buildings in Dallas.” He knew he wanted to chase predators for a living when in 1954 he picked up a copy of Outdoor Life and read a story by Walt Wiggins called “Traveling Trapper.” The story detailed an account of a WS trapper in New Mexico named George Williams, who was the legend of his trade then, as Riley is now.
Coyotes outsmarting their adversaries is nothing new. The coyote was a demiurge in Native American mythology, part god, part animal, part human, and was known as the “Trickster.” He’ll take on any form necessary to win, and though frequently killed, he always comes back, as Wayne Grady reports in his book The World of the Coyote.
More than a few ranchers wish the coyote wasn’t such a formidable trickster.
Truman Julian, a sheep rancher in Kemmerer, Wyo., who loses hundreds of sheep a year to coyote depredation, says, “I’ve tried everything, but they always find a way to beat me in the end.
“I tried using a tag that goes in the lamb’s ear. It had an odor that was supposed to keep coyotes away, but I found tooth marks in the tags. So I tried a spray repellent–no luck. I then tried a system where you light a fuse and cherry bombs go off every 30 minutes all night long. After a week I had to stop because it was like ringing the dinner bell for those coyotes. The same with strobe lights.”
With a sigh, Julian continues: “Donkeys and llamas are no good, either [they're supposed to become protective of the sheep and stomp coyotes]. They bond with the horses instead of the sheep. So now I bring in dog food by the semi. The guard dogs help, but the coyotes figure them out, too.
“They have three basic strategies: One coyote will come in on one side of the herd and distract the dogs while the others kill sheep, or they’ll get the dogs to chase them and run them into the ground. If all else fails, they’ll gang up on one dog at a time and just kill him.”
Trick for trick, coyotes and ranchers are in a constant duel. So the ranchers call in the experts from WS, who add their expertise to the game. And still the coyote wins more than he loses.
According to Riley, it’s no surprise that the coyote is such a success. “They will eat anything,” he says. “I’ve seen them eat tomatoes and watermelons as well as deer and livestock. This versatility of diet gives them an edge. And because of this versatility, we have to use a host of different methods.”
Leghold traps and snares are two of the more common tools. WS hunters also use M-44 cyanide guns–small, spring-loaded tubes, loaded with cyanide capsules and baited at the top with scent. When a coyote bites and pulls on the top, the capsule shoots up and into his mouth, killing him instantly. Predator calls, such as the howler and distressed pup, are used to lure in the wary predators, and dogs, helicopters and planes are some of the more aggressive ways used to fight the battle.