Thanks to DNA research, we now know coyotes migrated to the Eastern United States via two routes: across the South, where they spread into Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, and around the Great Lakes, where they occasionally bred with wolves along the way. Those northern coyotes filtered down through New York, Pennsylvania and into northern Virginia.
Science doesn’t make for a good campfire tale. It also doesn’t seem to get much attention on social media. A good conspiracy theory, however, generates all sorts of likes, shares and comments.
How else would you explain one of the more popular myths among hunters? Those coyotes ended up in Virginia and Georgia and Pennsylvania through more unscrupulous means. They were live-trapped out West, loaded into enclosed trailers, shipped across country under the cover of darkness and released deep in the woods when no one was around. The reason, of course, was to control deer populations, because apparently we’re incapable of killing enough deer on our own. Insert eye roll here.
It’s hard to dispute solid science, but lots of people do. Hunters, in particular, seem to foster a variety of conspiracy theories that involve cover-ups, dubious sources and questionable motives. They always seem to originate with a guy who knew someone who talked with somebody who worked for the state wildlife department that saw something. Or any variation of that.
“It seems like every time I hear that our agency released coyotes, and I hear it a lot, I ask for more details, but the story gets farther and farther away from any possible verification,” said Charles Ruth, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources deer project supervisor. “If someone in our department released coyotes, I want to know about it. Give me names and we will gladly follow up on it. Nobody ever does when I ask.”
What can be verified is that hunters themselves were responsible for the release of coyotes in many Eastern states before the animals migrated on their own. Ruth recalls a large criminal case in the 1980s that involved hunters bringing live foxes and coyotes from out of state for their hounds to chase. Others have been arrested more recently for similar crimes.
“Coyotes were coming, but those releases helped establish localized populations earlier,” Ruth added.
No matter how forcefully or frequently people like Ruth refute claims that the agency released coyotes, there is a cadre of conspiracy theorists who are convinced those denials are even more proof.
“Who would trust as an incredible (sic) source, an eyewitness or someone who denies reports?” wrote Daniel Benoit, a self-described “cryptozoologist,” on his East Coast Bigfoot Researchers Organization web site. Not only does Benoit claim that Bigfoot roams the Eastern United States, but he is convinced mountain lions live in his home state of Virginia. Part of his proof, apparently, is the denial of their existence by state wildlife agencies.
He’s not alone. Any Facebook post that mentions a lion sighting where they don’t exist is followed by countless others claiming they saw a mountain lion, too. One page dedicated to deer hunting in Virginia contains dozens of posts about the big cats, some with hundreds of comments. Based on those comments, the cats have been sighted in virtually every county in the state, although no proof has been produced, despite claims of videos and photos. So far, there hasn’t been a single verified trail camera picture, smart phone photo, road kill or identified track.
That hasn’t stopped countless people from claiming lions not only exist, but that the state wildlife agency released them; as if the addition of coyotes to the landscape wasn’t enough to keep deer numbers in check.
Such folklore is common in every state that doesn’t have a known population of mountain lions, but it is nothing more than a rural legend that simply isn’t true. States don’t release any animal, let alone a top-level predator, under a shroud of darkness—literally or figuratively.
“It would be impossible to try to secretly release something as large and controversial as mountain lions without someone finding out about it,” Iowa Department of Natural Resources biologist Karen Kinkead said. “That’s just something we would never do. No state wildlife agency would do something like that. Not only would that undermine the public’s trust in our agency, it would be impossible to pull off just from the logistics involved. You don’t just go to another state and catch a mountain lion and bring it back.”
Releasing any species, no matter how large or small, involves a lengthy bureaucratic process that always involves public scrutiny.
“We would have to develop a written plan, that plan would have to go through numerous reviews, we would hold public meetings and the various stakeholders would have to be in agreement over the plan,” Kinkead said. “If that plan is approved, we would have to work with another state to actually capture the animals and they would have to be tested for various diseases. Only after they were certified to be disease-free would we actually be able to release something. We would never skip any of those steps.”
Maybe those agencies are denying the existence of mountain lions for a more self-serving purpose: Managing endangered species is expensive. The covert existence of eastern cougars is a popular belief among conspiracists.
However, eastern cougars were declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018. They don’t exist. Western mountain lions aren’t endangered, and even if those western cats do wander east, those transient individuals don’t require any management or additional resources. Kinkead says the few confirmed sightings in Iowa are handled by DNR furbearer biologists and law enforcement when necessary. In most cases, agency staffers don’t do much of anything other than confirm a sighting and answer any questions that might arise.
“There really isn’t anything else we can do,” Kinkead adds.
For some, the conspiracy theory is deeper than an entire agency scheming to cover up the release or existence of a top-level predator. Insurance industries are in on it, too. Somehow, the insurance lobby conspired with state agencies to release coyotes to decrease deer numbers in order to keep insurance claims to a minimum. Or, the insurance lobby is strong-arming state wildlife agencies to knock down deer populations through hunting regulation changes.
“I’ve heard that for the entire 20-plus years of my career,” Ruth said. “I’m not even sure how that would work. We’ve had some of the most liberal seasons and bag limits in the country for years. How would the insurance lobby get us to get hunters to shoot even more deer?
“No one from the insurance industry has ever spoken to me about anything related to deer management, bag limits or anything else over my entire career. I know of no other deer biologist who has had a conversation with someone from the insurance lobby and I speak to other biologists all the time.”
In other words, despite the longevity of that rural legend, there is no truth to it. Insurance companies have a pretty good handle on their business models and adjust rates to maximize profits, no matter what the deer population might be. That is just another myth that just won’t die a natural death.
“I’ve also heard that we released rattlesnakes, but I can promise you, we didn’t release rattlesnakes,” Kinkead said. “I have no idea why people think we would have done that.”
Maybe they released rattlers to control the coyotes and mountain lions, one could speculate.
Feature image via John Hafner.