Coyote

The stare of a coyote
Coyotes are abundant throughout the park, and pup survival has increased.

NPS/Neal Herbert

 

Coyotes (Canis latrans) are intelligent and adaptable. They can be found throughout North and Central America, thriving in major urban areas as well as in remote wilderness. This adaptability helped coyotes resist widespread efforts early in the 1900s to exterminate them in the West, including Yellowstone National Park, where other mid-size and large carnivores such as cougars and wolves were eradicated. The coyote is a common predator in Greater Yellowstone, often seen traveling through open meadows and valleys.

 
Black track of a coyote
Coyote track

Number in Yellowstone

Abundant

Where to See

Meadows, fields, other grasslands, and foraging for small mammals along roadways.

Size and Behavior

  • Weigh 25–35 pounds, 16–20 inches high at the shoulder.
  • Average life span 6 years; up to 13 years in the park.
  • Home range: 3–15 square miles.
  • Primarily eat voles, mice, rabbits, other small animals, and carrion—and only the very young elk calves in the spring.
  • 4–8 pups are born in April in dens; emerge in May.

History

  • Like other predators, coyotes were often destroyed in the early part of the 1900s because they sometimes preyed on livestock.
  • Coyotes continued to thrive because their adaptability enabled them to compensate for the destruction efforts.
  • Elimination of wolves probably resulted in high coyote population densities; wolves’ absence opened a niche that coyotes could partially occupy in Yellowstone.
 
An illustration of a fox, coyote, and wolf in comparison to each other
Coyotes (middle) are larger than red foxes (front) and smaller than wolves (back).

Description

Often mistaken for a wolf, the coyote is about one- third the wolf’s size with a slighter build. Its coat colors range from tan to buff, sometimes gray, and with some orange on its tail and ears. Males are slightly larger than females.

During the 1900s, coyotes partially filled the niche left vacant after wolves were exterminated from the park. In Yellowstone, they lived in packs or family groups of up to seven animals. This social organization is characteristic of coyotes living in areas free from human hunting. With the reintroduction of wolves, Yellowstone coyotes have returned to a more typical social organization—pairs with pups.

Coyotes, also known as “song dogs,” communicate with each other by a variety of long-range vocalizations. You may hear groups or lone animals howling, especially during dawn and dusk periods. Coyotes also mark with their scent (urine and feces) to communicate their location, breeding status, and territorial boundaries.

 

Population

Until 1995, coyotes faced few predators in Yellowstone other than cougars, who will kill coyotes feeding on cougar kills. After wolves were restored, however, dozens of coyote pups and adults were killed by wolves—primarily when feeding on other animals killed by wolves. On the northern range, the coyote population decreased as much as 50% after wolves were restored as a result of competition with wolves for food, attacks by wolves, and loss of territory to them. More recent trends in the Lamar Valley, however, indicate that the coyote population has increased.

Comparisons of coyote population and behavioral data from before and after wolf restoration provide evidence of how the presence of wolves is changing ecological relationships on the northern range. A reduced coyote population could mean that smaller predators such as the native red fox, whose numbers were previously kept low by coyotes, will have less competition for small prey and their populations may increase.

 
Chart showing the annual count of coyotes and wolves since 1990.
Mid-winter coyote counts from the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center; year-end wolf counts from Yellowstone National Park.

NPS

Coyotes and Humans

Coyotes also face threats from humans. They quickly learn habits like roadside feeding. This may lead to aggressive behavior toward humans and can increase the risk of the coyote being hit by a vehicle. Several instances of coyote aggression toward humans have occurred here, including a few attacks.

Park staff scare coyotes from visitor-use areas and becoming habituated to humans with cracker-shell rounds, bear pepper spray, or other negative stimuli. Animals that continue to pose a threat to them- selves or to humans are killed. Coyotes and other park wildlife are wild and potentially dangerous and should never be fed or approached.

 
 
 
A wolf standing on a snowy bank near brown grass howls

Mammals

Home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states.

 

Resources

Crabtree, R.L., and J.W. Sheldon. 1999. The ecological role of coyotes on Yellowstone’s northern range. Yellowstone Science 7:15–23.

Crabtree, R.L., and J.W. Sheldon. 1999. Coyotes and canid coexistence in Yellowstone. Pages 126–163 in T. W. Clark, et al, editors. Carnivores in Ecosystems: the Yellowstone Experience. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gese, E.M. 1999. Threat of predation: do ungulates behave aggressively towards different members of a coyote pack? Can. J. Zool. 77:499–503.

Gese, E.M. et al. 1996. Foraging ecology of coyotes: the influence of extrinsic factors and a dominance hierarchy. Can. J. Zool. 74:769–783.

Gese, E.M. et al. 1996. Social and nutritional factors influencing dispersal of resident coyotes. Anim. Behav. 52:1025–1043.

Gese, E.M. and R.L. Ruff. 1997. Scent-marking by coyotes: the influence of social and ecological factors. Anim. Behav. 54:1155–1166.

Gese, E.M. and R.L. Ruff. 1998. Howling by coyotes: variation among social classes, seasons, and pack sizes. Can. J. Zool. 76: 1037–1043.

Gese, E.M., T.E. Stotts, and S. Grothe. 1996. Interactions between coyotes and red foxes in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Journal of Mammalogy 77(2):377–382.

Gese, E.M., R.L. Ruff, and R.L. Crabtree. 1996. Intrinsic and extrinsic factors influencing coyote predation of small mammals in Yellowstone National Park. Canadian Journal of Zoology 74(5):784–797.

Moorcroft, P.,M. A. Lewis, and R.L. Crabtree. 1999. Home range analysis using a mechanistic home range model. Ecology 80:1656–1665.

Moorcroft, P.R., M.A. Lewis, and R.L. Crabtree. 2006. Mechanistic home range models capture spatial pat- terns and dynamics of coyote territories in Yellowstone. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences 273:1651–1659.

Last updated: August 2, 2017

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