Coyote Pretty

I went to Yellowstone hoping to get close enough to a pack of wolves to get some good images, but knowing that realistically, my chances of getting close to other types of wildlife were much better. Of course, “close” is one of those relative terms, and I wasn’t quite prepared for the kind of “close” I experienced one afternoon.

Late one afternoon, I was watching some wolves relax in the snow on the other side of Slough Creek from me in the Lamar Valley. They were at a distance from me of approximately “who cares, they’re too damn far away to matter”, so I was straining to watch them through my effective 820mm lens (translation, really big and heavy), and they were still just dots.

Coyote Close, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

A habituated coyote walks right up to me looking for a handout, in the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

I was standing in the snow on the end of a small ridge, about 200 yards (meters) from the road. From this raised vantage point in an area that was essentially treeless, I could see all around me for quite some distance. The wolves were in front of me, and a lone bison was grazing off to the side a few hundred yards away. There had been a crowd of wolf-watchers near me earlier, but as afternoon wore on they had all left, tired of watching the pack do absolutely nothing, which is pretty much what they do during the day. In fact, the last photographer had just left, and as I turned around from watching him disappear over a hill on his way back to the parking lot, I got a bit of a shock. Standing next to my tripod and looking up at me curiously were two beautiful coyotes!

Keeping Close Watch, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

A skittish coyote hoping for a handout keeps close watch on the photographer, in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Now did I mention that I could see for miles around me? Where did these guys come from? I assume they had come up the base of the ridge from the direction of the road, because otherwise I don’t see how I could have missed them. And I suppose they were just waiting for the other guy to leave, as one of me wasn’t as threatening as two people would have been.

Speaking of threatening, my brain did a bit of a reboot as I summed up the situation and thought, “OK, it’s just me and two coyotes. They don’t appear to be rabid – yeah, I’m good.”. And if not, I can always whack them over the head with the over twelve pounds of camera gear sitting on top of my tripod. So I started taking photos.

What's That?, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

An alert coyote notices something interesting in the distance, in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

As I photographed these beautiful animals, it didn’t take long for me to figure out what was going on. These guys had been habituated by ignorant tourists who think they’re doing the animals a favor by feeding them. Well, they’re not. We’ve talked about this before, so I won’t belabor the point, but when you feed wild animals, you make them dependent on people and less fearful of them. This very frequently ends up with someone getting hurt, or the animal getting killed either by a car or from having to be destroyed for bad behavior. So don’t do it.

Now the reason coyotes got close enough to people to get fed in the first place is interesting. It seems that prior to 1995, coyotes had the run of the place. But in 1995, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park. And wolves absolutely hate coyotes worse than anything. It turns out that wolves and coyotes are very closely related, the ancestors of the coyote having diverged from those of the gray wolf 1–2 million years ago. That makes coyotes just close enough to be the wolf’s lesser cousin in the wolf’s mind, I suppose. And so they kill them for fun – literally, just for fun.

But, it turns out that wolves don’t want to be around people. This might have something to do with the fact that idiot humans have been slaughtering wolves just for fun almost to the point of extinction. It’s amazing to me how wolves are vilified in our culture (think “Little Red Ridging Hood”), when in fact non-rabit wolves rarely attack people. So anyway, the coyote figures out that the wolves are back, and I’m going to get whacked by the wolves, except the wolves don’t like people, and people don’t seem too bad, so I guess I’ll just hang close to the road where wolves don’t usually venture and maybe things will be OK. So that’s where you can find coyotes, close to the road, while the wolves are further back. Way, further back.

Just Sniffing Around, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

A pair of coyotes follows a scent, in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Anyway, once the coyotes decided I wasn’t going to feed them, they started to gradually move away, sniffing all around as they went. I kept photographing until they disappeared over the edge of the ridge. Later that evening I saw them hanging out close to the road, hoping for a handout. And the next day I saw them again, but this time they were running in the snow, looking for a meal far away from the road, exactly where good little coyotes should be.

Room to Roam, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

A pair of coyotes wanders around on a snowfield looking for dinner, in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

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