Coyote populations have made themselves known across West Virginia—but how did they come to be here, and to be so numerous?

This story was originally published in the January 2023 issue of  Wonderful West Virginia.
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Written by Edwin Daryl Michael
Photographed by Curt Helmick

Daniel Boone, George Washington, Lewis Wetzel, and other early explorers traveling through what is now West Virginia frequently encountered bison, elk, mountain lions, and timber wolves. Common throughout our hills and mountains during the 1700s, those large mammals were present as recently as the early 1800s. Now they are rare to non-existent. The last bison was killed in 1825 in Webster County. The last elk was shot in 1867 in Pocahontas County, and the last timber wolf fell victim in 1897 in Webster or Randolph County. The last mountain lion expired in Pocahontas County in 1976, and an examination ordered by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources indicated that that animal had previously been kept in captivity.          

As evidence of the presence of these large mammals in West Virginia during early settlement days, 75 streams and towns have “wolf” in their name, at least 64 are named for elk, 47 bear the word “buffalo”—bison were called buffalo by early European settlers—and 28 carry the word “panther” or “cougar.”

Never again will large herds of elk and bison or packs of timber wolves—also known as gray wolves—roam freely throughout West Virginia. However, the state’s fields and forests are now home to a relatively recent arrival, one that never existed in the mountain state in the 1700s or 1800s. That newcomer is the coyote. Reported sporadically in the 1950s and 1960s, its numbers have since exploded. Coyotes now occur in every county and in nearly every habitat in West Virginia, numbering in the tens of thousands.    

Never has a native mammal expanded its geographic range so quickly and so efficiently

Although no statewide survey has documented coyote abundance, sales of coyote pelts at the annual Glenville Fur Sale reveal fascinating trends. Five coyote pelts were sold in 1989 at Glenville. A total of 204 were sold through the 1990s, but then the numbers skyrocketed: 4,487 sold from 2000 to 2009 and 7,466 between 2010 and 2019. Numbers have dropped off over the past three years—whether due to COVID-19 market changes or a shift in fashion preferences away from fur-lined parka hoods—but the longer-term trend supports the general understanding that numbers of coyotes have grown in recent decades.  

The Most Successful Mammal

Prior to European settlement of North America, coyotes were restricted to the southwestern prairies. However, dramatic shifts in ecosystems throughout much of North America led to coyote numbers steadily growing and their geographic range broadly expanding. By 2000, these opportunistic predators were found from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and from northern Alaska to southern Mexico. They had moved throughout eastern Canada, appearing in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and becoming established in nearly all habitat types found in North America. 

Never has a native mammal expanded its geographic range so quickly and so efficiently, making this canine arguably the most successful mammal ever to live in North America. Its amazing range expansion occurred in spite of millions of coyotes being killed through nationwide, government-sponsored predator eradication programs.    

Much of the spectacular growth of coyote populations may be attributed to the widespread depletion of wolf populations. Wolves, at 90 to 120 pounds’ body weight, killed coyotes, which seldom weigh over 35 pounds. Coyotes did survive in prairies, but, with the decline of wolves, they faced no natural predators and virtually no competitors.  

The multi-pronged range expansion of the western coyote brought the animals across the Mississippi River and into the southeastern states in the early 1900s. Of even greater significance is the expansion of individual animals into Canada, into lands surrounding the Great Lakes, and south into the Appalachians during the late 1900s. Through interbreeding with their larger cousins, many of those northbound individuals ultimately acquired timber wolf DNA. The result of male wolves mating with female coyotes was a new hybrid, labeled the coywolf. These new canines have both wolf and coyote features, and most importantly weigh 50 to 75 pounds. Because their offspring are fertile, they will almost certainly add to our population of coyote-like animals.    

In a related note, coyotes also sometimes interbreed with domestic dogs. The resulting coydogs are typically infertile, thus incapable of producing offspring. Consequently, such cross-breeding will not increase coyote-like animals in West Virginia.

Opportunistic Feeders

The large “eastern coyotes,” as they are often misidentified, will sometimes form small packs, enabling them to kill adult white-tailed deer. While vulnerable fawns are frequently eaten by coyotes during summer months, adults are normally predated by coyotes only when weakened by winter conditions.

Much of coyotes’ recent success is because they are extremely versatile omnivores. Rabbits, hares, and myriad rodents—mice, rats, voles, prairie dogs, marmots, and dozens of species of squirrels—are food sources. Insects, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles also appear in their diet, along with fruits and vegetables. Coyotes are very opportunistic feeders.    

Adding to their ability to survive, coyotes are also scavengers. Tens of thousands of “gut piles” are left in our fields and forests by successful deer hunters every hunting season. Each pile of discarded organs—heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, and intestines—provides several days of effortless meals for a family of coyotes. Additionally, many deer are wounded by hunters or in vehicle collisions and subsequently become food for coyotes. Each deer can sustain for a week a family pack of parents, young of the year, and young of the previous year. As many as five to 10 pups are born in a den during April or May and reared by both parents.  

Coyotes in West Virginia can be a threat to farm animals. Free-ranging chickens and turkeys—plus newborn calves and lambs—are all easy prey for adult coyotes, forcing many farmers to employ guard animals to protect their livestock. Burros, donkeys, and llamas will all drive away coyotes, but the most successful method is having large guard dogs such as the Great Pyrenees or Komondor mingle with a flock of sheep, day and night, watching for a hungry predator entering the pasture.  

Tolerant of humans, coyotes in more urban areas frequently engage in nighttime strolls down city streets and through backyards searching for busted bags of garbage, bowls of dog food, or free-ranging house cats. One tasty meal will encourage them to return another night.


Their nocturnal and wary nature means coyotes are rarely seen by people enjoying outdoor activities—but, if seen, their reddish-gray fur coat, pointed ears, and pointed snout distinguish them from domestic dogs. Their unique tracks can also be distinguished when snow cover is present, and game cameras regularly capture their image on film. The most reliable method of detecting their presence, however, is by their vocalizations. Seldom heard during daylight hours, coyotes howl and yip almost every night. These so-called “songdogs” call to announce their presence to other packs, attract mates, and coordinate their nightly hunts.    

Portions of this story were condensed from Dr. Michael’s novel Coyotes of Canaan, which can be ordered from West Virginia Book Co. or by calling 304.342.1848

Coyotes are especially vocal during winter months, but can be heard every month of the year. While they howl and yip, they also bark, growl, wail, whine, and yodel—the interested property owner can install an outside microphone with an inside speaker to bring these vocalizations indoors. A coyote chorus may have 14 different vocalizations, making it extremely difficult to estimate the number of individuals calling.

Although not considered part of West Virginia’s resident wildlife, the coyote and its call have become firmly embedded throughout our mountain state. The coyote is classified as a “nuisance predator” in West Virginia, and there are no closed seasons or bag limits. Hunters can hunt any month of the year and harvest as many coyotes as they desire. Trapping is legal from November 5 to February 28, with a variety of trap types permitted.  

Despite hunting and trapping, there is little doubt this canine will increase in numbers and play an important role in stabilizing prey populations for many years to come. While the timber wolf will never return to West Virginia, the eastern coyote will partially fill the ecological niche of its larger canine cousin. As an added bonus or bane, they will become, sooner or later, a permanent fixture in our towns—large or small, rural or urban. The adaptable, clever coyote is here to stay.