A chat with the species’ wiliest ally, biologist and author Geri Vistein.
[A]fter spending decades in Maine as an educator and a nurse, Geri Vistein left for the University of Montana in 2002 to indulge her passion for conservation biology. She thought she’d devote her next chapter to studying wolf reintroduction in the West, but after completing a master’s degree at the University of Vermont, she ended up back in Maine, where she’s become the state’s most vocal advocate for the often-maligned eastern coyote, crisscrossing the state to give talks on the species’ ecological value. Vistein’s new book, I Am Coyote (Tilbury House, Thomaston; hardcover, 192 pages; $16.95), picks up where her presentations leave off, tracing the coyote’s life cycle from the ground-level perspective of the animal itself.
You came to wildlife biology later in life. What were your goals?
I wanted to be what I call a “bridge biologist.” I wanted to take all that my fellow scientists have worked on and bring it to the people. All these journal articles, all these things in the hallowed halls of our universities — people never get it, especially in reference to carnivores.
You were initially interested in wolves — what changed?
I was aware there were organizations here in the East that say, “We want to bring the wolf back to Maine,” and the contentiousness surrounding that. But wolves are not part of our landscape. Here, we have a wild canine, but it’s a unique wild canine, in that our coyotes’ ancestral mothers were western coyotes, but their ancestral fathers were eastern Canadian wolves. So our eastern coyotes are larger; they have some wolf genetics in them. It’s a fascinating evolutionary thing that’s happening, to watch this species working to survive.
So do coyotes play a role in the vision of reintroducing wolves to the Northeast?
If we want our children’s children’s children to accept and welcome wolves here in Maine — where they should be, since we need the larger canine here as well — then we should teach them through coyotes, because they are a wild canine like wolves, and a lot of our coyotes act like wolves here: they’re larger, with powerful jaws.
You’re saying they’re a gateway canid?
They have the potential to teach our generation what it’s like to live with a wild canine, how it’s really important to the balance of the ecosystem.
How is it important?
Wherever wolves are not in North America, coyotes are a keystone species. So whatever animals they kill to survive, whether it’s a deer or a rodent, they affect the health of that species, balancing their populations, taking out the diseased ones, taking out those with weak genetics. They’re making those species stronger in ways that we can only glimpse the complexity of.
Their major prey are herbivores, which eat green things that other species depend on. So if you have larger herbivores, like deer, eating massive amounts of the greens that birds, butterflies, bees, and salamanders depend on, then those species go down. Foresters are concerned about the number of deer in this country, and there are very few predators for them, so what’s happening is that they’re destroying our forests.
What do you say to those in Maine who view coyotes as pests — as threats to domestic animals or livestock, say, or as a check on the deer population that deer hunters would prefer to do without?
I try to show coyotes’ complex world. I’m not shy about showing their relationship with deer, how they go after fawns in the spring, for example. Nature needs that predator. No living being on the planet is a pest — that’s just a word that we humans give to other beings. “You’re a pest because I think you’re getting in my way somehow.” That’s where education can shift that, to make us realize this is an invaluable carnivore that will bring health back to the landscape of Maine.