The wild canids of winter

Erling Friis-Baastad A coyote trots toward a man walking a husky on a leash, so the startled Homo sapiens pulls his snarling Canis familiaris off the trail and Canis latrans nonchalantly strolls on by.

by Erling Friis-Baastad

A coyote trots toward a man walking a husky on a leash, so the startled Homo sapiens pulls his snarling Canis familiaris off the trail and Canis latrans nonchalantly strolls on by.

A small red fox shows up in the dark on a downtown street and ambles for several blocks beside a bemused pedestrian – just as if Vulpes vulpus always enjoyed sharing its night-time strolls with people.

A wolf boldly jumps the fence into a suburban yard and carries off a briefly-unattended lapdog: a meal, at long last, for an aging Canis lupus.

Recent winters appear to have brought on more of such wild-meets-townie encounters than ever, especially around Whitehorse. What gives?

Several things, according to Mayo-based wildlife biologist and canid specialist Mark O’Donoghue. Most obviously, towns are expanding further into the wilds, which increases the chances of such encounters. Less apparent, at least to a city dweller, is that a favourite canid food source is in relatively short supply and has been for a long time.

“We’ve had quite an extended low period of snowshoe hare densities through much of the North, certainly in the Yukon,” says O’Donoghue. “They usually go in 10-year cycles, where there are peak densities and then a collapse to a low. We sort of missed that last peak. Numbers went up in 2006-2007 but peaked out fairly low and then dropped down again.”

Are we facing some sort of hare/canid disaster?

Not really, at least so far, says the biologist. As well as the 10-year cycles, there are cycles within cycles, with very high peaks and especially low lows. “We don’t have a great understanding of why some peaks are low and some aren’t … but the low peak doesn’t really point to anything to be worried about.”

With all the sightings this winter, some might wonder if the coyote and fox populations are burgeoning. “I wouldn’t say in the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve seen anything beside the normal ups and downs,” O’Donoghue says. “Coyotes only came into the territory about 1920. There was a general expansion north.” No one knows exactly what brought them here, but coyotes do like to travel along roads and trails, and to gobble down whatever food people leave around.

“Coyotes are real opportunists. There are whole populations of coyotes that live in downtown Vancouver, for instance.”

Foxes, however, have lived in the territory for as long as we have records, says O’Donoghue. “Where I am in Mayo we don’t get lots of coyotes because the snow is too deep and powdery for them. But foxes are a lighter weight and have bigger paws relative to their body weight, so they can stay up on snow.”

As for the more southerly Yukon, the frequent sightings of foxes and coyotes at the same time in the same area is a bit unusual, says O’Donoghue, because coyotes will eat foxes.

As for wolves, while packs do range to the suburbs occasionally, in search of well-fed pets to eat, most often it’s a lone wolf, one too old to run with the hunting pack after moose, that will resort to eating snowshoe hares, and family pets when hares aren’t available.

In the back of our minds, is the question: how dangerous are coyotes, foxes and wolves for humans? There have been a few reports of children being attacked by coyotes, though not seriously harmed, in Whitehorse over the years. However, the killing of a 19-year-old folksinger in Cape Breton Highlands National Park by two coyotes made national news on October 2009. How frightened should we be in the Yukon?

“It’s important to note that the coyotes back in the Northeast are actually much bigger than our coyotes,” says O’Donoghue. “They can be up to double the size of our coyotes. The genetic lineage of eastern coyotes has actually incorporated some wolf genes and (eastern coyotes) actually function ecologically there, filling the niche of the wolf.”

Meanwhile, there’s a long-standing, feel-good rumour that wolves never attack humans. That’s not true, say both O’Donoghue and Whitehorse-based conservation officer Kris Gustafson. There are documented cases of grown men being attacked, and even killed, Gustafson adds. But considering all the human-animal encounters, the instances of wolf violence against people aren’t all that common.

For those of us raised to the south, the mention of fox conjures childhood warnings about rabies. “Luckily we don’t seem to have rabies in any sort of regular occurrence in the Yukon,” says O’Donoghue. “It’s not like we don’t have rabies, period. But that has not been a big worry.” However, like coyotes, foxes can kill a cat or even a small dog, and are capable of inflicting a nasty bite.

The fact is, it’s the wild canids who may ultimately suffer most from close encounters with humans. Foxes are especially vulnerable, because they are cute and may approach quite closely, perhaps because someone once fed them.

Many people like having foxes around, but Gustafson gets calls all the time from people who don’t, mostly because they fear for the safety of children and domestic pets. The conservation officers must then live-trap the fox and relocate it to a spot where competition for food may be fiercer and enemies more prevalent. Coyotes, however, don’t fall for live-traps and troublesome ones may suffer a worse fate.

The Wildlife Act prohibits feeding foxes, coyote and wolves, says Gustafson. “Foxes are very capable of foraging on their own.

“Feeding coyotes and foxes is a death knell.”

This column is co-ordinated by the Northern Research Institute at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College/ The articles are archived at www.taiga.net/yourYukon.

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