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21 Feb 2023
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Best of Mammoth

You might have seen a coyote wandering around town and thought, “Someone lost their dog!” Only to discover upon closer inspection that that is no dog. What you probably saw was one of our resident coyotes.

Coyotes are just one of the native species that you can see in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding wilderness of the Eastern Sierra. And, while our area is certainly not the only place in California with coyotes—the Department of Fish and Game estimates that there could be up to 750,000 of these guys living in the state—there are a few things you should know about our unique variety.

In this article, we’ll introduce you to canis latrans lestes, the Mountain Coyote. And, we’ll talk about what we locals do to keep them wild.

What do mountain coyotes look like?

Mountain coyotes tend to be larger than their desert or valley relatives, weighing in at around 25 pounds (about 10 pounds heavier than other varieties). They have adapted to the mountainous regions of California with a coat that is more gray wolf than desert fox. Their fur is also thicker and woolier than other coyotes. Despite these differences, our coyotes are similar to their close cousins with a bushy tail, tall slender legs, big pointed ears, and a narrow snout.

Coyote pictured in Yosemite versus coyote pictured in Death Valley
Can you tell which coyote was photographed in Yosemite Valley versus Death Valley?

When are they most active?

Unlike many of the animal species we have here in Mammoth Lakes, coyotes don’t disappear during winter. In fact, these hardy canines don’t hibernate and they don’t migrate. And, given that they burn more calories keeping warm during winter, they actually become more active during this season. 

It’s common to see coyotes during winter in Mammoth because they’ve learned that packed snow is much easier to navigate than fresh powder. They may also be more drawn to town as a food source when their natural prey hunkers down for the winter.

What’s more, mating season for coyotes takes place between January and March. This makes them more bold, especially around domestic dogs.

What do they sound like?

The full range of vocalizations that coyotes can make will surprise you! In fact, they are considered to be the most vocal of all wild canines, a group which includes wolves, jackals, foxes, and dingoes. 

Coyotes can howl, yip, growl, grunt, bark, and whine. And, they employ something called the Beau Geste Effect, a type of auditory trick that makes a single coyote voice sound like many. This can give the impression that you’re hearing a pack of coyotes, when really, it’s more likely for them to travel and hunt alone or in pairs.

That being said, if you do hear what appears to be a cacophony of coyotes when you’re out in the wilderness, don’t assume it’s just one. It’s possible that you’ve entered into the territory of a pack, which could consist of 5 to 10 adults.

Are they dangerous?

Attacks on humans by coyotes are extremely rare as coyotes don’t typically hunt in packs or see adult humans as prey. But, they should never be considered harmless animals.

For one thing, coyotes pose a significant threat to domestic pets. Dogs, rabbits, cats, and chickens are all viable prey for coyotes. In fact, many of the reported injuries from coyotes on adults involve a dog owner protecting their pet from an attack.

And while rare, there have been some cases of children being attacked by coyotes. The risk is especially high when coyotes have lost fear of humans or been pushed into urban areas because of habitat loss. 

What’s important to remember is that mountain coyotes, like all other wild animals, are doing their best to survive and take care of their young. We should respect them and remember that they may act aggressively in pursuit of food or to protect themselves.

How can we keep coyotes wild?

You’ve heard us locals go on and on about bear safety. But the truth is, we do a lot to keep all of our animal neighbors wild. Here are a few ways that we care for coyotes:

  • Securing garbage all year long. It’s a bit of a misnomer to call our garbage bins “bear proof.” After all, they’re not just for bears! These specially designed dumpsters also prevent other wild animals, like coyotes, raccoons and birds, from feasting on our leftovers. Doing so cuts off an easy food source in town so that our wild neighbors are encouraged to stay away. For this reason, we continue to remind all of our visitors to secure food and garbage all year long, not just during bear season.

  • Giving coyotes plenty of space (and demanding it, if need be.) Coyotes are quite common in our neck of the woods, so it’s important to know what to do when (not if) you see one. Make yourself large, be loud, and give them a wide berth. Never, ever feed a coyote or approach one (even if the photos would look amazing on Instagram.) Remember that every positive interaction that a coyote has with a human puts them at higher risk for dangerous run-ins with people later on. Enjoy them from a distance, but make it obvious that you don’t want to be friends.

  • Having our pets securely in our control. There are many places around Mammoth that you can have your dog off-leash. But, when coyotes are out and about, you are running the risk of an attack. Even dogs with great recall can be enticed by a coyote, either because they think they’re protecting you or are being social. Keep your eye on your dog at all times, and consider picking up small dogs if you see a coyote in the area. 

  • Spaying or neutering pets. Coyotes are members of the canine family, which means that they can reproduce with our domestic doggos. Making sure that your dog is fixed before visiting Mammoth can save them from wandering off in search of a wild mate and lower the appeal for coyotes to wander into town.

  • Driving slowly. We humans pose a far greater risk to coyotes than they do to us. The more that they venture into our territory, the more at risk they are from being hit by cars. So, always drive slowly around town and in surrounding areas and keep your eye out. Their amazing camouflage can be tricky to spot until it’s too late.

Mountain coyotes are just one more wild neighbor we love to protect!

As you can see, coyotes are neither pests nor pets. Instead, they are wild animals that deserve our care and caution. If you see a coyote in Mammoth Lakes, consider yourself lucky! And do what you can to keep them wild so that many other Eastern Sierra visitors get to see this amazing animal.

Check back in with the Mammoth Mountain Reservation blog to learn about more wild animals you can encounter in the mountains!