There you were, bold against the snow in the Lamar Valley, ears erect, snout down, ready to pounce, listening for the self-betraying movement of your prey in its dug-out tunnels a few inches below.
You paid not a bit of attention to me. In one sense, I was glad; it's not worth getting the perfect picture of an animal if doing so means disrupting it, and such disruptions can be harmful or even fatal to the animal. But in another sense, I was a little saddened not to be acknowledged; some part of me, the part that thrives on feeling like a part of the pulse of the wilderness, craved your notice and subsequent acceptance-- not friendship but not fear, either-- just acceptance.
The moments we shared stay with me more than any other wildlife encounter that stands out in my memory. More than the time I watched mountain goats dance down the sheer cliffs of Mount Timpanogos as I plodded along the ridge trail. More than the time I saw a cougar in the Absaroka Range. More than the time I thought a bull moose in rutting season in the Wasatch Range was about to charge me. More than the time a black bear in the Sierra Nevada made a bluff charge at my brother and me. More than the time I surprised a young grizzly and found myself within spitting distance of it in the Great Bear Wilderness of Montana's Flathead Range.
I like to think you were the same coyote featured in a National Geographic video I’d seen a year or two before. The location was the same. The movements I saw were dead ringers. But maybe that was owing to the remarkable way your brethren have adapted and evolved; it only makes sense that what works would be adopted and repeated by all struggling to survive in the white hell and sublime wonder that is the Yellowstone winter.
In all likelihood, you are no longer alive. Your lifespan in the wild is up to 15 years, and you were no pup when I saw you nine years ago. Age could have taken you. The wheels beneath a rushing tourist could have. Maybe you strayed from the protection of your home to find yourself targeted by the poisons, traps, or rifles of your human neighbors. Furthermore, the numbers of your kind have dropped in the Lamar Valley since the reintroduction of the gray wolf became such a success. Your larger cousins, in establishing their dominance, have driven off or killed so many of you. You had become the largest of your kind, much larger than the average coyote; in fact, you and your regional brethren were often mistaken for wolves.
And you do. The bison, who shook the earth when they ran and sustained an entire culture that practiced the now-forgotten ethic of taking just what one needs and honoring its lifeblood, were nearly slaughtered and needed the hand of the federal government to save them. It was the same with the grizzlies. And so it was with the wolves. But you have endured and even thrived.
You have been chased, trapped, poisoned, and shot, but you endure. You can outrun, outwit, or outmaneuver dogs; avoid traps; get through or over fences; and change your habits. Mixed into you are the craftiness of the fox and the endurance of the wolf. You lack the purity of the former’s cunning and the chase-ending lethality of the latter's strength, but you have enough of both to do, on the whole, better than both, for you know how to do what survival demands and have always eluded the best efforts of those trying to exterminate you, no small feat in this age when entire species vanish forever each year solely or primarily because of our activities.
There is always more than one side to any story, I know. For every time you and others of your kind have moved me, there are probably at least three ranchers or farmers with a story to tell about lost sheep, chickens, dogs, or other animals. The monetary loss you have caused farmers and ranchers, and the heartache you have caused pet owners, are real and should not be ignored or celebrated, but there is no doubt that many of your enemies have developed a grudging respect for you, the kind of respect evenly matched foes anywhere often discover. And I daresay that if we kept score, we would find we have done far more harm to you than you have ever done to us, so I won't get to feeling too guilty for admiring an animal some people see as nothing but a pest to be eradicated.
Despite the campaigns against you, despite attaining the shoot-at-will label of “varmint” in so many states, you are reputed to live in every U.S. state except Hawaii. You have been sighted and photographed in New York’s Central Park and Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, hardly bastions of wilderness. Governments of suburbanized areas such as my own hometown, where all is supposed to be middle-class bliss and the worst that ever happens to most of us is a traffic jam making us late for the nightly joy of trying to get our kids to eat what they don’t want to eat, issue warnings to pet owners, saying that coyotes pose a particular risk to cats and small dogs. When I found a mutilated fox on a neighborhood basketball court recently, I did not suspect a shotgun-wielding yuppie, an abnormally aggressive dog, or one seriously rough racoon; I thought of you. (But please leave my cats alone; if you’re smart, as I know you are, you’ll avoid Eowyn, anyway, because she just might tear you to pieces-- I can tell you that from personal experience, as can some dogs I’ve known.)
I have seen you, as I have already said, in Yellowstone, America’s wilderness heart. I have also listened to you at night there while I shivered in my mummy bag as winter kept its grip on March, and if there is any sound in the American wilderness that can be more haunting and inspiring at once, it can only be the howl of the wolf, the bugling of the bull elk, the scream of the cougar, or maybe the sound of ice crashing from a glacier. I have watched you stalk, slink, and prance in Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, the Wasatch Mountains, and in other places I have probably forgotten. Your songs have kept me awake-- and kept me from wanting to sleep lest I miss a moment of the magic-- in the badlands of South Dakota and deep in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, there in the shadow of the Continental Divide, America’s great backbone in both a geographic and a wilderness sense.
Many of the Native Americans saw you and the raven as gods or god-like characters for your intelligence and your trickery, and you fill their lore (fitting, perhaps, that when I saw you that day a raven was just a few feet away from you). You play a vital role in the creation myths of the Navajo. Whoever dreamt up Pecos Bill had you raising him from childhood. Even Looney Tunes paid you a tribute of sorts by making your name a play on the word wily; in those cartoons, you never caught Road Runner, but you never quit, and it wasn’t long before I found myself in your corner.
Although you are not solely or even principally of the mountains, you in many ways demonstrate the spirit of the mountains, who, as Aldo Leopold once said, are the only ones who have lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf (and maybe the call of the coyote-- my addition), and the mountains would not be the same without you.
You are more than a symbol. You are a survivor. You are an icon. You are an indelible part of the heart of the wilderness. You were here before us and will probably be here after. There are many who hate you, and some of those many have fair reasons for it, but I still feel a thrill every time I see you. And I miss you. After all these years, I still look at your picture and think about you, wondering what ever became of you.
I hope it was noble. Good night, sweet prince.*
The rest is silence.**
* Horatio to Hamlet just after the latter's death.
** Hamlet's final words.
Please note: The subject of predators is always a touchy one. I included some lines meant to show I am not blind or indifferent to the costs, financial and emotional, coyotes have imposed upon some people. I also do not wish to ignite yet another polarizing debate about these animals and others like them; my article is, as I hope is clear, just a tribute to the beauty and the tenacity of these creatures.