Hearing The Top – Seeing The Bottom

              Coyote at Ash Meadows NWR

Coyote at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Apex: Without a doubt, coyote (canis latrans) is the top predator at Ash Meadows NWR. His presence around the refuge is ghostly – often heard yet seldom seen. During many mornings and evenings, I have tried to make a high fidelity recording of his pack’s yeps and howls, only to have coyote, aka Trickster, mock my clumsy and inexperienced attempts. Occasionally, I would hear a pack’s chorus a mile or so from my chosen location. Later that evening I would reset to the area of promise, only to hear the pack erupt at some distance in a completely different direction. Twice, as I arrived at a location and stepped out of my truck, a pack howled warnings in close proximity to me. Unprepared, I could only stand and admire their beautiful song, all the while promising myself that next time mics and recorder would be ready. But let me back up a bit, one attempt to record coyote was actually a success, albeit limited. Unknowingly, I walked into the middle of his habitat with the intent of recording a pack heard the night before in the dunes located a few hundred yards to the west. I set up during the late afternoon and sat quietly and motionless for almost an hour. I can only guess that a single coyote passing through picked up my scent. He could have been as close as a hundred feet to me when he howled an alarm. For the next 15 minutes he continued to warn any coyote within earshot of my presence. Unfortunately for me, none of his companions were compelled to answer his cries. It’s a good recording, but not the pack celebration that I’m seeking.

I’ve seen Trickster a couple of times at the refuge, but last fall I saw a condition of his plight that disturbs me to this day. While camping on public lands in a remote area east of the refuge, I was awaken in the middle of the night by a terrifying sound. Have you ever heard the screeching squeal of a distressed rabbit? Think of a wilderness version of “fingernails on a chalkboard.” At first, I mistook the eery sound for a coyote completing a successful hunt. Then my campsite was illuminated by a high-powered spotlight in the hands of a hunter. In that moment I realized that the screeching sound was blaring from speakers mounted on top of the hunter’s truck parked on the nearby dirtroad. Three spotlight beams blasted from the truck’s cab, shining light on me and the surrounding hillsides. The hunter’s M.O. was to pique the curiosity of hungry coyote with a rabbit-in-distress recording and lure him from hiding. If the unwary canine exposed his position, then he could expect to meet a volley of bullets or a shotgun blast. Hunting coyote on the refuge is considered poaching and is unlawful. Outside the refuge the situation becomes deadly. Coyote is considered a varmint, a nuisance animal by state wildlife officials and is not protected by state hunting regulations. In fact, a hunter of coyotes need not even possess a state hunting license. The hunter’s passed me, turned around at the refuge boundary and passed again, lighting up my campsite each time. Fortunately, I never heard a shot fired. Perhaps Trickster grew wise to their ways. I’m aware of only three possible motives for the hunters outing that night, entertainment, profit (there is a market for coyote pelts), or participation in a kill contest. The contest is a most despicable pastime where the hunter hauling in the highest body count wins the pool of cash. The pile of corpses at the end of these events sometimes numbers in the low triple digits. I’m not against hunting, but I find no honor in this activity. My motives for contact with coyote are simple. Just once, let me place microphones in the vicinity of a pack of song dogs welcoming the new day, so that I might share their beautiful chorus with those that hath ears to hear.