By: Randy Tucker
Canis latrans is better known to a generation of early Saturday morning cartoon addicts as Wile E. Coyote. The American coyote, the jackal of the Great Plains, is now just about everywhere, as the spread of civilization has been good for the species. Along with raccoons and deer, the suburban sprawl has made life easy for the coyote.
I’m not one of those driven hunters who opens up on every predator they encounter. Predators have a special place in the ecosystem, no more no less than deer, antelope, elk, or geese. I have encountered coyotes on a majority of my wilderness adventures.
The area east of Riverton, Wyoming stretching more than 100 miles to Casper, is one of the most primitive public areas remaining in the lower 48. The stark, untouched landscape is reminiscent of central Nevada, and as with the Silver State, the untouched description is only recent. The area is marked by wagon ruts along the old Oregon Trail, abandoned mining camps, and the forlorn hopes of previous generations in slowly decaying cabins.
One morning, we were antelope hunting about 45 miles east of Riverton, just past the ghost mills of a once booming uranium industry.
As the sun rose, I had the peculiar sensation that something was watching me. In those pre-dawn hours just before violet changes to a rosy glow, and the sun explodes on the landscape, I caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure above me on a small hill. Sure enough, a coyote was surveying the situation from above. I gave him a good look from 75 yards away, and he returned my stare. Call it a little interspecies mind-meld if you will. Our silent exchange lasted about 90 seconds, then he loped off into invisibility. I took a nice 14” pronghorn buck a few minutes later.
One morning, we did set out specifically to hunt coyotes. I don’t like shooting non-edible species, but my son is a varmint hunting addict.
We set up north of Lusk, Wyoming, near the old Hat Creek Stage Station. History abounds in the entire Cowboy State. This was a watering hole and rest station on the Cheyenne to Deadwood Stagecoach line in the late 19th century.
Our objective was a few miles away at the Wasserburger Ranch. I went to school with their oldest son J.D. at the University of Wyoming, and their younger son was a friend of mine from the state legislature. Jeff’s son Andrew wrestled at Dickinson State University, where my son Brian was a strong safety and decathlete. His other brother Jory was in the nursing program at Wyoming with my daughter Staci. You might say we were involved with the family.
Brian had all the gear you could ask for, including a couple of electronic coyote calls that made a sound resembling a wounded rabbit. The other played different coyote barks and howls.
My son-in-law Adam was with us. We set up on a snowy ridge after a half-mile hike from the gravel road leading to the Wasserburger house and barns.
We wore as much white outerwear as we could find. Brian looked for all the world like Jed off the 1980s movie "Red Dawn" in total snow camo gear.
We set up about 60 yards from each other and began to play the calls. Nothing came in on the rabbit call, but we started to get replies when we played the coyote sounds.
They moved closer for a while, but "close" is a relative term in eastern Wyoming. I’d hunted this area heavily 25 years before when I was a beginning teacher and coach. I knew the ridges extended one after the other for a long distance, almost to the Montana border 150 miles to the north.
We never saw a coyote that morning, but we learned to pick out their distinctive voices from a distance. They’re incredibly intelligent animals and didn’t fall for our trick that day. Sometimes I think they play with us, as much as we play with them.
My most common coyote encounter comes on the west shore of Bass Lake, officially known as Lake Cameahwait, 20 miles north of our home in Riverton. It’s our go-to fishing spot each summer for largemouth bass, perch, and an occasional trout.
In the late summer evenings, just after the sun drops over the Wind River Mountains to the west, when the fishing is at its peak, we’ll start to hear the coyote dens.
The pups will call for their mother from the matted cattails and sedges lining 150 yards or so of the west shoreline. Not even a domesticated dog could penetrate this matted vegetation, but their not-so-domesticated cousin the coyote calls it home.
It’s a safe spot to raise a litter of pups, with ample food surrounding the area in rabbits, prairie dogs, birds, and even scavenged scraps from the campgrounds nearby.
There’s something sadly forlorn about the plaintive call of a coyote on a still night, but that lonely howl has an atavistic barb to it that calls to the primitive in our psyche. It is the call of the wilderness, and I hope it rings across the plains forever.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Photograph by Jim Kennedy