Here comes a biggie

November 17, 2010

Today I went for another ski – praise the snow gods – this time at Bohart. I made it up to Lookout, which was no easy feat with my lack of early season conditioning, and started toward Bracket Creek and in front of me I saw a coyote! As usual with coyotes, especially in the west, I didn’t precisely see the coyote, but the tail end of the coyote and this was one nice bushy tail end. Immediately I thought, “there is something to write about.”

Because it turns out coyotes are one of my obsessions.

I am going to leave it at that and go on with a story from this past summer to illustrate my point. I was at a bar, okay, the bar, in Winnett, Montana. How I got to this bar in Winnett, a town with the motto “You can blink twice, but we are still here” pasted on its welcome sign is for later.

For now, imagine me sitting at a country bar in eastern Montana with Zane the old guy on one side and a construction worker from Billings on the other. This was the night of the last NBA final game and Billings guy had been there for a while. I had three drinks waiting in the form of upside-down dixie cups in front of me bought by Billings guy and his friends and it was 11:00. I was about 2 hours past my social limit.

And then Billings guy brought up coyotes.

Apparently for a drunk guy from Billings,  the best way to flirt (even my faulty flirt-dar was blaring warning signals in my head) with a girl who has already admitted to the blasphemy of working for the University of Montana, home of the hated Griz, and to liking plants and animals and sciencey things is to brag about how he lures coyotes close to him by staking out his dogs and proceeds to shoot them. Seriously? Now, I know how alcohol works and I have some idea how stupid men work, so I shouldn’t have been that surprised and I shouldn’t have been that indignant either.

But, unfortunately I could feel the hair on my ruff rising and a bit of a snarl forming on my lips.

People hate coyotes. People hate coyotes enough to risk their dogs and spend hours waiting for the coyotes to come in. People love bragging about how many coyotes they’ve killed. I talked to a guy last summer who kills coyotes for the federal government in Wyoming and he averages 70-80 per day. The government puts canid-specific poison, which of course can easily kill domestic dogs, out on public lands and fails to put adequate signs to warn people. I saw a sign warning of poison literally 200 meters from a campground in a National Forest in Wyoming.

Coyotes are predators. Coyotes kill small defenseless things like lambs and mule deer fawns that people would like the right to kill later. People blame them, along with wolves if wolves are around, for lack of success during deer season. However, I have not found any studies that show that coyotes cause population level decreases in mule deer populations. Moreover, studies by state wildlife agencies, which are not known for being coyote friendly, in Montana, Colorado and Utah, found that coyote removal does not lower fawn mortality even though coyotes are one of the main predators for fawns.

How can this be? This shows one of the limits of this type of science. Fawn mortality is generally deduced by examining fawn carcasses. It is very difficult to tell whether a fawn died of starvation and the carcass was eaten by a coyote or whether the coyote killed it. Even more importantly, the fawn might have been weakened by starvation and would have died  even if the coyote hadn’t killed it.

Science is based on testing assumptions and then testing the assumptions that created the assumptions.

People are based on assumptions.

So I told Billings guy he was stupid because I couldn’t help it. Then I turned to Zane the old guy and happily conversed about canoeing the Missouri in the 1980’s.

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One Response to “Here comes a biggie”

  1. Toni Polfus said

    so you were drinking in a bar with old men????

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