History and Habitat
No animal can appreciate the relative hospitality of wild preserves such as Rocky Mountain National Park more than the coyote.
This remarkable canine long reviled by ranchers and farmers as a threat to livestock roams throughout the park, free, and unhunted. Here the coyote cannot be shot, trapped, run down, or poisoned. In Rocky Mountain National Park this clever creature is a cherished citizen respected for its survival skills and intelligence, not a rogue animal species to be eradicated.
The coyote did not always enjoy such status however. The first few years after Rocky Mountain's dedication in 1915, coyotes regularly were killed in the park. The perception in those days was that predators were "bad" and large ungulates such as elk, deer, and bighorn sheep were "good." Since then, the coyote has been protected and is regarded as the national park's most common predator.
Unlike its cousin, the wolf, which no longer is seen in Colorado, the coyote thrives as human population continues to increase.
Coyotes, in fact, today are more widespread than ever nationwide, despite man's century-long effort to kill them off. Ever adaptable, coyotes are as at home near urban areas as they are in remote regions.
Seen throughout Rocky Mountain National Park in most habitats, coyotes seem to prefer open meadows and ponderosa pine woodlands to dense forests. Their distinctive barking, yipping, and howling, often heard early in the evening and morning, is a ritual enjoyed by park visitors, many of whom consider these coyote vocalizations reassuring sounds of the wild.
Few of nature’s creatures are less finicky in their diets, which helps explain the coyote’s wide distribution.
Its reputation as a scavenger is well earned. Coyotes in Rocky Mountain National Park regularly feast on the carcasses of deer, elk, and other animals, especially during the winter months. Coyotes also are skilled hunters. When they are available mice, voles, ground squirrels, cottontails, hares, and marmots are among the creatures falling prey to hunting coyotes as are occasional birds, snakes, and even insects. Studies of coyote scat performed in Moraine Park found the contents to contain 45 percent deer and elk and 23 percent rodents. Plant growth also can make up a significant percentage of the coyote’s food intake.
Often seen traveling alone or in pairs, coyotes will band together to hunt larger prey, including mule deer, elk calves, and bighorn sheep. The coyotes’ hunting schemes can be elaborate. A pack of coyotes has been observed hunting bighorn sheep by herding them in a meadow past visitors and up a slope where waiting members of the pack pick off a lamb or ewe.
In areas where they may be subject to harassment from humans, coyotes tend to be most active at night in order to avoid contact. But in wild sanctuaries such as Rocky Mountain National Park where they are allowed to roam undisturbed, they often are spotted during the daytime, offering visitors good chances of seeing one.
Coyotes breed from January to March. Pairs usually do not remain together for life, but they may mate over a period of several years. The five to seven pups are born about 60 days after mating occurs. The newborns arrive blind and hairless. The male works to provide food for his nursing mate.
Their eyes opening within two weeks, the coyote pups are reared in dens, which may be prepared by the mother after being requisitioned from another animal, perhaps a badger. The pups are ready to leave the den at between eight and ten weeks of age. The coyote family remains together until fall, when the youngsters strike out on their own.
Park visitors should never approach coyote pups or attempt to remove them from their den.
Please Do Not Feed Coyotes or Other Park Animals
Visitors’ choosing to feed coyotes and other wild animals is an ongoing concern in Rocky Mountain National Park. Rangers have been forced to kill coyotes that have exhibited threatening behavior after accepting handouts from humans. Feeding coyotes and all other wildlife is illegal in this—and other—national parks.
Coyotes have proven remarkably able to take care of themselves without feeding, or other human interference. These fascinating creatures have earned the begrudging respect of even their most ardent detractors. Perhaps coyotes truly are, as some Native Americans claim, the most intelligent animals on earth.
Did You Know?
In 2004 there were 190 Search and Rescue incidents in the park, a very small number considering there were about 3 million visitors to the park in that same time period.