On a recent autumn night I was driving down a quiet stretch of highway between North Bend and Snyder, when I came over a rise and encountered a coyote trotting across the road. Neither of us had time to avoid the collision, and I ran over the unfortunate canine. There were a lot of scraping noises coming from the smashed plastic bumper, so I stopped, straightened it out by the light of a flashlight, and continued on to Clarkson. The next day I asked Don Sucha to take a look at it, and he quickly pointed to considerable damage under the hood – bent radiator, bent power steering lines and broken air conditioner. I suppose that’s the tradeoff for making fuel-efficient cars out of plastic and aluminum instead of chrome steel, and in the following days I heard many stories about small animals doing large damage to modern cars. Some expressed surprise that it was a coyote that I hit; it’s not unusual to run over a raccoon, rabbit, or even a deer, but coyotes are less common and are supposed to be wily.
It was a long, hot trip back to Tennessee without air conditioning, but it’s hard to blame the coyote. In his defense, he was here first. Coyotes have lived in the Clarkson area long before the European immigrants moved in, and for that matter for hundreds of thousands of years before the Native Americans moved into North America. Before mankind complicated their lives, coyotes roamed much of the western U.S., feeding on bison, deer, birds, rabbits, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. When farmers and ranchers moved into the area, their menu expanded – they became major predators of livestock (especially sheep and calves) and the scourge of chicken coops. The increased food resource, as well as the removal of their major competitor/predator, wolves, permitted coyotes to expand their numbers to the point that they caused considerable losses of livestock and hardship for the farmers. For the early settlers, and well into the 20th Century, hunting and eliminating coyotes was less a sport than an economic necessity.
When I told my collision story to Don Novotny (who grew up in the Heun Church area, southeast of Clarkson), he recalled his childhood memories of organized coyote hunts. Don writes:
“Do you remember the community hunts for them? The hunts were advertised in local area papers, and guys came, even from 20 – 30 miles away. Big sport – Sunday afternoon events during November – March each year. The sight of the closing phase, late afternoons on winter days, is unforgettable. HUNDREDS of hunters and dogs, converging on a single, pre-determined spot, usually an open, barren pasture. Usually the only coyotes bagged for the day were killed in that final, concluding circle, where hunters closed in from all directions, many times shooting at a remaining coyote (or two) running desperately along the inner side of the rapidly closing circle, looking for a gap to run through. When finally killed, those last-to-be-killed coyotes must’ve been carrying a pound of B-B’s & buckshot. They, too, were brutes, very very tough to bring down with shotgun, and of course with men converging from opposite side of circle, no rifles were allowed.”
“All afternoon, along the country roads that were within the designated circle-for-the-day (which was actually a 6 mile by 6 mile square to start with), designated cars/pickups would drive along, following the progress, seeing where there were gaps, and then passing the word to other places where there was an excess of hunters, and offering to transport them to the gap-places where they were needed to prevent coyotes from escaping the circle. Those designated drivers also had the job of gathering the rabbits (jack-rabbits were the favorite game then) which were then taken to a central place (I’m not sure whether they were cooked for a post-hunt feed, or whether they were taken to a charity place).”
“I don’t specifically recall it, but I’m sure that the designated drivers also brought coffee, and maybe even beer/whiskey, to the hunters who stopped off for a few moments as they climbed the fencerows onto the county roads and dropped their collection of rabbits for pick-up.”
“But the closing phase was terribly exciting; the sound of shooting from the opposite side of the circle gradually became louder as the circle converged, and then, finally, the thrilling and awesome sight of the giant ring of hunters gradually closing in, some of them almost shoulder to shoulder at the last stage. And the shooting at that point – well, it must’ve sounded like wartime battlefield.”
“And it was comical, too; many farmers that were “otherwise not hunters” would come out and join the fun, and since they had little experience or skill, there was lots of shooting very wide of the target; and of course lots of shooting at crows or other birds that happened to fly over; shotgun pellets flying all over the place.”
“At the end of each hunt, of course, the ladies’ clubs brought sandwiches and kolaches, there were bonfires, lots of story-telling and laughing, and then, finally, everybody climbed into their model A’s and went home to do the chores.”
“The Heun area had such a hunt several times, ending on the big bottomland area just to the north of the church (between the Stanley Lodl and Michael’s farms. (Michael’s was former Folda farm, from whence came what was reputedly the biggest Czech-owned banking enterprise in NE (maybe USA). I recall even Father Oborny coming down from the parsonage to join the campfire phase; he was a character, very lively (you’ll remember he was big supporter of the Heun Giants pugball powerhouse).”
“I seem to recall that there were bounties paid in those days, by whom I don’t recall. Soon after WW II, Piper Cub planes came in, and became extensively used for spotting and killing the coyotes (shooting out of the plane windows); apparently it was great sport, but I recall some pilots bit the dirt over that. Anyway, another case of technology causing great change. The last of the coyotes gave way to the piper cubs, and the Sunday afternoon hunts suddenly were no more. I recall that in the late 30’s, on any given winter Sunday, there was often a choice of hunts going on, sometimes even more than one in a given county, all having been, as I mentioned, advertised in the local papers during the week before. But by the time those ended, the jack-rabbits were pretty well gone, too.”
“Absolutely unforgettable times. Way better than church & school picnics or wedding dances – which, in those pre-TV years – think about it – were the only other social events or entertainment (other than after-Mass gatherings, or card parties) that life had to offer. Yes, some pretty vivid recollections, quite unique times, nearly 80 years ago.”
Early coyote hunt near Denton, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of the Denton Community Historical Society http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nedchs/photos/index.htm
Photo of Oklahoma coyote hunter from Wolf and Coyote Trapping (1909). http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34501/34501-h/34501-h.htm
Gosper County, NE coyote hunt. Photo courtesy of William Mahar. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~negosper/photos/coyote_hunt.htm
The files of the Colfax County Press reveal several stories about coyotes and coyote hunting. (Note: coyotes were often called wolves, so it is likely that the “wolves” in these accounts actually refer to the coyote, Canis latrans):
December 1, 1908 – Ed Rozmarin, mail carrier on routes 4 and 5, tells that one day last week he saw three wolves and the following day two more, none of the animals having shown the least concern at his approach.
With wolves that plentiful, it is a little wonder that some of the poultry yards in the country south of this place have been suffering. It looks as though the farmers in that neighborhood ought to have a successful wolf hunt.
February 14, 1911 – They had a wolf hunt out at the Wisher ranch the other day and two large wolves were killed.
May 2, 1918 – Ed Pohlman of Stanton made quite a cleaning last week. When he captured 13 coyotes, which netted him $26.00
May 4, 1922 – Louis Folken, a resident of Colfax county, living about 8 miles northwest of Schuyler, is easily the champion coyote hunter in the county, if not in this section of the state. Mr. Folken has killed 19 coyotes in the past two years. Last spring, he located a coyote nest and set traps for the elders and succeeded in trapping the mother, but she broke the chain and escaped with the trap about one foot. Mr. Folken finding the trap gone, killed the 10 small ones and the neighborhood kept a close lookout for the old ones, and saw the mother several times with the trap still on her foot.
Last fall Ernie Adams with his hounds attempted to clear the locality of the two coyotes, but the crippled one was able to keep away from the dogs and escaped. A short time ago, Mr. Folken located the nest and again set traps, but the old coyotes were wise to his tricks and refused to go near the nest.
Mr. Folken then determined to kill the young ones, and did. While he was digging out the nest, the male member stood a safe distance and witnessed the performance. Mr. Folken did not then have his rifle and has since been unable to get near enough to be within shooting distance.
However, with 19 young coyotes to his credit in two years, easily establishes him as the champion of the county, but he will be much more satisfied when he brings in the two old ones.
March 6, 1924 – It is estimated that three hundred people took part in the big wolf hunt southwest of Leigh last Sunday afternoon. An area of several miles was encircled and at the end of the hunt it was revealed that four coyotes paid the penalty.
Exciting scenes took place throughout the hunt and it is reported that one of the beasts was cornered in a feed yard on one of the farms where it was killed after a long chase.
Quite a number of rabbits also fell at the point of the numerous guns. Coyotes are said to have caused considerable damage in the locality where the hunt was staged.
Both Don Novotny and the Colfax County Press stories mention bounties paid for wolves and predators. Here is what the Nebraska State Historical Society has to say about the bounty system (and the perhaps the inevitable corruption of that system).
Wolf Bounties in Nebraska –
“The large number of claims coming into the [Nebraska] State Auditor’s office for bounties on wolves and coyotes has led that official to make an investigation,” said the New York Times on January 20, 1902, “and he has arrived at the conclusion that the farmers and ranchers in the western part of the State have gone into the business of breeding these animals for the bounty market. In one instance it was found that one farmer had raised more than 100 wolves last summer from several animals he had trapped and penned up for that purpose.
“Other cases were unearthed where from fifty to sixty of these animals had been reared. In October and November they were killed and their scalps presented for redemption at the office of the County Clerk of each county. The State law authorized the County Clerk to pay $3 from the county fund for each coyote or wolf scalp presented, and he certifies the fact of payment to the Auditor, who pays $1 additional, making $4 for each wolf or coyote. The State Auditor declares that this pays better than hog raising, and naturally the farmers have turned their attention to this industry.
“The law was passed years ago when the wolf and coyote were the great foes of the cattle and sheep men. In the last ten years $150,000 has been paid by the State alone as bounty. The Legislature of 1899 appropriated $60,000 for the purpose, and of this amount $43,000 was immediately demanded by holders of old claims. The remaining $15,000 was gone within six months, and when the last Legislature appropriated $15,000 it was at once swallowed up by holders of old claims.
“There are now on file with the Auditor claims aggregating $25,000, and by the end of next year this figure will be doubled. These figures indicate that instead of being killed off, the wolves are increasing. The explanation is now simple.”
A new wolf bounty law, sponsored by James A. Douglas of Rock County, took effect in 1905. It provided for a bounty of $5.00 for each wolf, $1.25 for each coyote, and $1.00 for each lynx killed. The Lincoln Evening News of November 28, 1905, noted continuing problems with wolf bounty claims under the new law.
The News said: “Some of the state officials charged with supervision over the operations of the law are a little fearful that some of the county clerks are not well enough versed in animal lore to know the difference between the scalp of a yellow dog and that of a wolf, so that when John Jones comes in with a few bits of raw fur with ears attached they are apt to take the word of the claimant, as to the character of the creature from which the trophies were taken.”
Hunters exhibit their trophies following a hunt in Franklin County in January 1914. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society NSHS RG3367.PH3-23.
Massed hunts occurred in the Elmwood, Nebraska area. In http://www.blog-nebraskahistory.org/2013/01/fire-and-accident-a-friend-to-coyotes/ , David Bristow wrote:
Organized hunts for “wolves” (what we now call coyotes) were a frequent part of the winter sporting scene in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. Hundreds of hunters frequently joined in, but despite all the manpower, the wily coyote was not always bagged. Sometimes he seems to have been amply revenged on his hunters.
In a hunt covering 117 square miles held in March 1900 in Rock and Brown counties, a ring of hunters on foot, horseback, and in vehicles was formed to trap their prey within an ever-tightening circle. However, the hunters were foiled and many coyotes escaped due to a prairie fire. The Omaha Bee reported on March 22: “A lighted match dropped accidentally by one of the riders ignited the grass and in a moment the prairie was in flames. The lines being broken to fight the fire, at least twenty-five wolves escaped, but after all five were killed within the ring.”
After a hunt south of Elmwood in 1913. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society. NSHS RG3384.PH3-5.
More than five hundred men participated in a hunt in January 1913 near Elmwood, with eleven coyotes killed. The editor of the Elmwood Leader-Echo, who took part, noted on January 31 the shooting mishaps that occurred: “During the hunt two or three men were shot as a result of carelessness, but no one was hurt seriously. A shot from a heavily loaded shot gun entered the mouth of one of the hunters through the cheek, and it is said the fellow spat it out, seemingly unconcerned over the incident.”
A large hunt in Franklin County in January 1914 by two to three hundred men and boys resulted in the shooting of six coyotes and a wild dog. No mishaps with fire or firearms were reported, but the Franklin County News said on January 17 that “some of the boys who were not used to trudging from eight to twelve miles, were about all in the next day.”
Hunting for coyotes continues in Nebraska. They are considered a non-game animal, and neither a permit nor a habitat stamp is needed for a resident of the State to hunt or trap coyotes. It is always open season for them. But the days of the raucous, exciting, terrifying community hunts are over.
Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry. – Navajo saying