Fairbanks -- If a Fairbanks trapper caught a coyote 15 or 20 years ago, he or she became somewhat of an instant celebrity on the town's trapping circuit.
"Fifteen years ago it was a rare thing if somebody caught a coyote in Fairbanks," said Al Barrette, a Fairbanks trapper and fur buyer who owns and operates Fairbanks Fur Tannery. "It was the talk of the town among trappers."
No more. Trappers in Delta commonly catch coyotes, he said. One trapper Barrette knows catches more than 50 coyotes a year.
"Now it's not uncommon at all to catch a coyote in Fairbanks," said Barrette. "I've got three or four on stretchers right now."
Coyotes are probably Alaska's least-known and least-studied predator. Nobody knows how many coyotes there are in Alaska, and nobody really cares besides the few trappers and hunters who target them.
"As far as statewide priorities go, they're not real high on the list," said state wildlife biologist Steve Arthur with the Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. "We don't have any organized effort to monitor coyotes in the state."
The reason is simple.
"Nobody has ever identified coyotes as a big predator of ungulates here," Arthur said.
Unlike wolves, which are the targets of increasing predator control efforts around the state, coyotes don't eat moose and caribou, unless they happen to stumble across a carcass left by wolves.
While coyotes are one of the two main predators of Dall sheep lambs in the spring, along with golden eagles, their main prey are snowshoe hares, which are not necessarily high on any hunter's list when it comes to filling the freezer or putting a trophy on the wall. Neither are their other sources of prey -- porcupines, marmots, voles, grouse, ptarmigan, squirrels and carrion.
First noted in Southeast Alaska shortly after the turn of the century, coyotes have expanded their Alaska range over time. They are now spread across much of the state south of the Yukon River. The highest densities are found on the Kenai Peninsula, in the Matanuska-Susitna valleys and in the Copper River Valley. In recent years, there have been numerous reports of coyotes north of the Brooks Range.
"A year or two ago somebody caught a coyote in Wiseman and didn't even know what it was," said Barrette, referring to small community on the Dalton Highway 275 miles north of Fairbanks.
Coyotes are a common sight around Fairbanks nowadays.
"I see them crossing the road in the Goldstream Valley on a regular basis," Arthur said.
One night while Arthur was mushing dogs, he said, a coyote jumped out of the woods on the trail in front of the team.
"It ran (in front of) the dog team for awhile," Arthur said. "It was like we had an extra lead dog."
Arthur is one of the few biologists in Alaska who has studied coyotes. He and Laura Prugh, a graduate student from the University of British Columbia, completed a five-year study on coyotes in the foothills of the Alaska Range south of Fairbanks last year.
The focus of their study was to determine how coyotes responded to a crash in the snowshoe hare population. Specifically, the two researchers wanted to see whether coyotes would increase predation on Dall sheep lambs when hares became scarce.
For the study, 19 coyotes were collared and equipped with radio transmitters that allowed their movements to be tracked. The two scientists also collected more than 1,500 scat samples from coyotes to determine what they were eating.
What Arthur and Prugh discovered is that coyotes turned to porcupines and carrion, not Dall sheep lambs, when their primary food source ran low.
"There was no increase on predation in sheep," Arthur said.
They also witnessed a major decline in coyote reproduction when the snowshoe hare population crashed.
"They basically stopped reproducing for three years in the study areas," Arthur said. "That showed they require a certain amount of prey abundance to reproduce. The adults were able to sustain themselves, barely, but not enough to reproduce."
While it appears coyote numbers seem to fluctuate slightly according to the snowshoe hare population, they are not as dependent on hares as other animals, such as lynxes, which all but disappear when the hare cycle bottoms out.
"They dip a little after a hare crash but don't go away," Arthur said. "They subsist on alternate prey."
Coyotes are amazingly adaptable animals. Barrette refers to them as "the white-tailed deer of the dog family."
"They can live anywhere on anything," he said.
While coyotes pelts are "not a big-ticket item," according to Arthur, both he and Barrette said there are trappers and hunters who concentrate on coyotes, especially those who are into predator calling. The only effective way to hunt coyotes is by calling them, which involves simulating the cry of an injured rabbit.
An increase in coyote numbers in Alaska isn't necessarily a good thing for trappers, though, Barrette said. Not only is the price of their fur relatively low -- $30 to $50 a pelt -- they can also put a dent in other more valuable fur-bearer populations.
"They're not a real popular animal to come into an area," Barrette said. "They're super competitors with marten, lynx, fox and everything else."
Unlike wolves, which usually travel in packs, coyotes are more solitary. In their study, Arthur said the biggest pack he and Prugh saw consisted of six coyotes.
"Normally you just see a pair or one or two pups with them and that's it," Arthur said. "It's not smart behavior for coyotes to build up a big group because wolves pick them off."
In addition to trappers and hunters, wolves keep Alaska's coyote population in check.
"(Wolves) can run down a coyote no problem," Arthur said, noting that he and Prugh found two coyotes that had been killed by wolves during their study.