Friday, November 16, 2012

Top Predator Part II

Coyotes may now be the top or apex predator, but it wasn't always so.  Records suggest that coyotes moved back into the Ozarks around 1880.  They probably arrived to fill a vacuum being created by the extirpation of wolves and panthers around that time.

Wolves were common in the Ozarks prior to the arrival of European settlers after 1820.  Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's journal records killing a wolf on the banks of the Findley River on December 31, 1818.  While camped on Pierson Creek just a few miles east of Springfield off Sunshine, they killed two more on January 2nd and 3rd.   Holcomb's later History of Greene County states that "Wolves were plentiful and wolf hunts were common and often exciting".

Silas Turnbo recorded the stories of early settlers before the turn of the century, turning them into a valuable archive.  Of his more than 800 stories, 106 were about wolf encounters, hunts, etc.  These make fascinating reading, bring to life these early human-wolf encounters.  You can page through these online here, courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library.

Reading these stories, you can understand why early settlers were threatened by wolves.  A 2001 University of Arkansas paper describes the situation just across the border in Arkansas:
"Depredation of livestock and fear of personal attack fostered perceptions held by early settlers concerning the threatening nature of large predators. Many settlers suffered heavy losses when their cattle, hogs, and colts fell prey to wolves and panthers. Tales of human attacks became wide spread, and out of desperation people often barricaded the homes against these predators. Accounts by travel write during this time period also helped to reinforce these fears.  

Wolves and panthers became known as ruthless killers and as a result bounty laws were enacted which encouraged the mass removal of these animals. From 1816 to 1921 a series of legislative acts were formulated to encourage the killing of wolves and panthers, which ultimately played a significant role in their demise."

Along the Arkansas border during the 1940s, there were still reports of killing between 10 to 32 wolves at a time.  Meanwhile coyotes started expanding further into the state and hybridization with wolves was occurring.  Wolves may kill coyotes which generally make themselves scarce in wolf territory.  This is an example of the observation that two species generally cannot occupy the same niche.  The last Arkansas wolves were extirpated by the early 1970s.

Wolf +/- Coyote at 81#
A report of a wolf  now killed in Missouri is big news.  "A 104-pound wolf was killed by a landowner in 2010 in Carroll County, and another was shot in 2002 in Grundy County. Both had wandered from the northwest"  Now a new story from the Springfield News-Leader reports the killing of an 81 pound "coyote" has raised more questions.  This would be seven pounds over the national record for a coyote.  This may be a coyote-wolf hybrid or even an imported animal escaped from an exhibit.

It seems unlikely that wolves will return to Missouri as they have in Yellowstone in enough numbers to resume their role as apex predator.  But with a little hanky-panky in the gene pool, our coyotes may start getting bigger.

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