M361: The Little Coyote that Could
M361 was not the biggest coyote in the Lamar Valley. In fact, for an alpha male, he was relatively small, and was constantly being bullied by bigger males especially during the breeding season. But what he lacked in size, he made up for in resourcefulness and tenacity. And in the end, he lived a lot longer than any of those bigger bullies.
M361 was born into the Druid Pack (not to be confused with the famous wolf pack of the same name) in 2004, and remained there as a beta male the following year. But in 2006 he dispersed, running with the Bison Pack for a few months before spending the rest of the year with the Jasper Bench Pack. Then, in 2007, he took over as alpha male of the Paradise Park Pack – all this moving around may be evidence that he was low on the social order, probably owing to his small size, while his eventual promotion to alpha of a pack several territories away is further evidence of his tenacity and talent.
In Paradise Park, his mate was F722, making for one of the Canid Ecology Project’s rare breeding pairs in which both male and female were radio collared (the “M” in M361 stands for “male”, while the number is the frequency of the transmitter on his radio collar). Aside from the radio collar, one of M361’s most recognizable characteristics were the identification ear tags that were attached to him when he was first trapped: a bright green tag in his left ear, and a bright orange tag in his right. Those ear tags allowed us to identify him without radio telemetry equipment: indeed, one of M361’s observations was recorded by a father and his young son who were visiting Yellowstone, stopped to ask what we were doing, told to keep an eye out for the coyote with the green and orange ear tags, and came screaming back a couple hours later saying “We saw M361! We saw M361!”
I particularly liked M361 because he was road-savy. He wasn’t a beggar hoping for a handout from passing cars like many coyotes that have been fed, but rather knew that it was a lot more efficient to trot down the side of the plowed highway during the winter, as opposed to breaking trail through the deep snow, just so long as he jumped out of the way for passing traffic. So when some visitors told us there was a dead coyote just off the road in Paradise Park, I was afraid it was him. But when we approached the dead coyote, we realized it was not him. It was F722, who never walked on the road if she could avoid it. But she hadn’t been killed by a car, as we expected: tracks in the snow showed that she had been killed by wolves. F722 was an old coyote at the time – around 11 – and probably didn’t hear or see the three young wolves as they were on the road bank just a big pounce above her (young wolves sometimes kill coyotes to hone their fighting skills). But before she died, she and M361 did successfully raise one pup to adulthood. We named him Baby Alvin Warren, after the name on a grave from 1903 on the hill behind our field station in Cooke City.
After Baby Alvin Warren dispersed and M361 was alone once again, he achieved his greatest accomplishment, killing a bison calf by himself! After harassing the heard as it grazed alongside the riverbank, the bison decided to ford the river, leaving the newborn calf on the opposite side with the hungry coyote. The calf did fight back, and M361 received a few kicks for his trouble, but he eventually was able to bring the calf down. Our crew was there to record play-by-play details of the nearly 6-hour event, and they reported their observations in the peer-reviewed journal, Canadian Field Naturalist.
The last time I saw M361 was in 2014 when he was 10 years old – ancient for a wild canine, especially a male. He’d led a long and successful life in a difficult environment full of dangers and competition, especially for such a little guy. But his nearly hairless, rat-like tail showed that the disease mange had finally caught up with him, and there was nothing his resourcefulness or tenacity could do about that. So that was probably his last winter, although the battery on his radio collar had died long before then, so we recovered neither it nor M361’s body. That may be because old coyotes never die, they just fade away…