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"Wildest of all beasts is the wolf,
and wildest of all wolves is the coyote."
It was on August 12, 1804, northwest of today's Onawa, Iowa, that Lewis and Clark first recognized the "Prarie(1) wolf which was barking at us as we passed" like a large "fest,"(2) and set out together to shoot a specimen for its scientific interest, but failed to even get a shot at it. A little over a month later, on September 17, one of the hunters brought in "a Small wolf with a large bushey tail," and on the following day Clark himself scored "a Prarie Wollf, about the Size of a gray fox bushey tail head & ear like a wolf." Lewis wrote his description of what proved to be a new species on May 5, 1805, in northeastern Montana.
The call of the coyote frequently embellished the Corps of Discovery's nighttime soundscape. At St. Michael's Prairie near present St. Joseph, Missouri, On September 11, 1806 Lewis wrote:
At the time, Lewis's "burrowing dog of the praries" seemed the most explicitly descriptive name for the species, but "prarie wolf" and "brush wolf" seemed appropriate also. No one in the Corps had yet heard of a "coyote." An English-language version of the native (Nahuatl) Mexican word coyotl first appeared in print in 1824, proceeding from "coyjotte"(3) to "collates" to "cayeute" until it reached its orthographic terminus in the 1880s as "coyote," now pronounced either ki-yoh-tee or ki-yote, depending on local preference or personal habit.
European traders in on the upper Missouri had known of the prairie wolf for many decades, and Lewis's added few details that were new. In fact, Nicholas Biddle, in his 1814 paraphrase of Lewis and Clark's journals, condensed Lewis's remarks to three sentences: "The large and small wolves of the plains principally inhabit the open country and the woodlands on their borders. They resemble, both in appearance and habit, those of the Missouri plains. They are by no means abundant in the plains of the Columbia, as they meet there but very little game for their subsistence."(4) The first academic description for scientific purposes was published in 1823 by Thomas Say, who classified it in the genus Canis (kay-nis; Latin for "dog"), and designated it as the species latrans (lay-tranz, "barking").
Lewis's estimate of the geographic distribution of the "prairie wolf" was significant, insofar as it provides a baseline for comparisons that show how its range has expanded during the past 200 years, and why. Coyotes learned during more than 20 million years of conditioning to stay out of wolf territory, but as the human population increased, wolves were virtually wiped out, and the coyotes naturally moved in to fill the void. They are somewhat less particular when it comes to daily sustenance, and the rodents that have multiplied around human settlements, farms and ranches, provide plenty of their favorite food. Today, although wolves have been re-introduced into parts of the American West, coyotes remain the dominant terrestrial predators from coast to coast, and from Central America to central Alaska. They have practically no competition from the lower mammals, and they continue to thrive despite the numerous and often unbelievably cruel ways that two-legged predators have devised to extirpate them.(5)
Among the nine North American species in the genus Canis, the coyote occupies a "medium-siz" slot. The coyote the Corps, plus Sacagawea, Old Toby, and his son, ate for supper one night in late September of 1805 wouldn't have done much to fill 35 empty stomachs by itself, since a full-grown coyote in its best days tips the scale at somewhere between 25 and 35 pounds—head, tail, bones, innards and all.
In real life the coyote's name has come to stand for much of the worst behavior of which humans are capable, and there is a long list of uncomplimentary adjectives to prove it, although many have lost their sting now that most of us have been separated so far from wildness. On the other hand, the coyote is a prominent figure in North American Indian mythology; Nez Perce mythology is especially rich in that lore.
Coyote myths are not about coyotes in general, or as a species, but about "coyote" in the third-person singular—not "them" but "him." He is prehistoric. He is ageless. He is as self-centered and frail as any human, but as liberal and omnipotent as any cosmical fantasy-fiction hero. He is a mentor, moralist, and master, yet he is not a god. He is the supreme trickster-transformer, though he is never malicious. He is at once "hot," and "cool." The ultimate tale about coyote is the one that relates how he re-created all the people from the bones and blood of the monster that had eaten them, saving the heart for the Nimi'ipuu—the real people,—and ending with the oracular announcement: "Only a short time away is the coming of the human race."(6)