In her work as a conservation biologist, Brunswick-based Geri Vistein gives voice to the coyote, an animal she says is unfairly and cruelly maligned. Coyotes get a bad rap for killing chickens and other livestock, but she says they are actually essential to farms, provided there’s a guard dog around as well.

She’ll be speaking about guardian animals and farming carnivores at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center (the show runs Tuesday to Thursday).

So coyotes make good neighbors for the likes of chickens and bunnies? We called Vistein to find out more. To give a sense of her passion for coyotes, she refers to them all as Coyote (singular, no article) and suggested we run a photograph of one instead of a portrait of her. “Coyote always catches people’s eyes in the paper,” she wrote to us, “and besides, they are far more beautiful than I.”

NOT ALL WILE E.: The Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife estimates there are at least 12,000 coyotes living in Maine. Coyotes can be good neighbors to humans, Vistein said. “Coyotes are quite capable of living among humans,” she said. “It’s just that the humans don’t quite know how to live with them.” How and why are farmers supposed to live with them? “They do rodent patrol,” she said. “You name it, from a woodchuck to a vole to a mouse to squirrels.” It’s about balance, she said, keeping down the numbers of pesky and disease-carrying rodents on a farm. So the farmer or orchard owner doesn’t have to sit on her or his porch, shooting at woodchucks. And coyotes will also cull deer by going after fawns in the spring.

“Coyotes are a lot like us,” she said. “That is one reason that they are such absolute survivors.” They eat seasonally, varying their diets accordingly. Summer is for the rodents, she said, “then it’s berry time in September.” They also eat grass. And according to the Inland Fisheries website, sometimes “pet food, garbage, garden crops, livestock and poultry.”

CLUCK, CLUCK? In defense of the coyote, these are all items we humans have placed in front of them, like a tasty, high-calorie buffet. Which is why Vistein’s idea of coyotes living happily beside humans on the farm is predicated on the presence of guardian dogs, stationed outside to protect the livestock. The coyotes work around them, she said, cleaning up the riffraff that might be hanging around the barn (remember Templeton?). “Guard dogs speak the same language as coyotes, so they are the ultimate protection.” The two animals are very closely related species, after all. She recommends Great Pyrenees and the like, dogs that are bred to guard and operate on instinct. Vistein gave the same talk at last year’s agriculture show, encouraging this practice, and said the talk drew a crowd. “It was filled to the brim with people. To me that was a statement that people want to learn about sustainable farming using guardian animals.” She’ll be joined at her talk this year by Harpswell farmer Laura Grady, who uses a guardian dog at Two Coves Farm.

TICK TOCK: The vermin can carry diseases and are typically riddled with ticks, so we see the upside of keeping their numbers down. But don’t coyotes have ticks too? “Absolutely no research is being done on coyotes, so we don’t know,” Vistein said. “If coyotes live a relatively peaceful life and are not persecuted, they have very strong immune systems. They carry on. They are survivors.” Again, they could have ticks, right? “Yeah, they can, but we don’t know,” she said.

She advocates for research on the wild canines. “We need the funds,” she said. “People think we know everything, but we know so little. We have to tread lightly and go by what we know… Every single species has a role to play.”

IN A TRAP: Native Americans celebrated the coyote, but in the early days of European settlers, Vistein said, they and their relatives were vilified. “The wolf was the devil and they saw coyotes as prairie wolves,” she said. And most people still think of them as the enemy.

“Today, coyotes in Maine have absolutely zero protection,” she said. “People can kill them day and night. They actually encourage men who have nothing else to do to go out and kill them for fun. I talk to some of my friends who are biologists with Inland Fisheries, and they show me things you wouldn’t want to see. These guys come with their dogs and hunt and kill the coyotes and leave their bloody body lying there. And people see this. People have sent me pictures of coyotes in snares, which is like hanging them but hanging them slowly, an agonizing, painful death. This stuff goes on in Maine.”

As Inland Fisheries puts it in its information on the species, “The coyote’s tenacity tries the patience of some and (draws) the admiration of others.”

COYOTE HISTORY: How long have coyotes been in Maine? According to Vistein, they started appearing in northern Maine in the 1970s (the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife says this happened in the 1930s). “Some of the elders here in Maine talk about before and after and it is really amazing what they say.” Which is? That before the coyotes came, there were rabbits everywhere in Maine. “They say after the coyotes came, we started to see the balance.”

ORIGIN STORY: Originally from Ohio, Vistein first moved to Maine 25 years ago. She came to conservation late, after she had earned a master’s in education and worked as a registered nurse. “I have had a very convoluted life,” she said. “And I’m grateful I did. Nothing went right after another. There’s really a journey.” She went to the University of Montana at Missoula because she knew she wanted to study carnivores. “In that area, they are surrounded by terrestrial carnivores,” she said. “I wanted to experience carnivores.”

THE FULL DEGREE: She made the decision to live like a college student, even though she was “a very mature woman” at that point. “I sold my house. I drove my car across the country. I lived in the dorm.” Then she went to the University of Vermont, earning her master’s in wildlife biology in 2006. She thought she’d end up out West for good, but Maine – and her cause – called her home.

There aren’t wolves in Maine, but there are coyotes. “Canine carnivores have such an immense intelligence,” she said. “Why do humans have such a hatred for them? There’s such persecution. I wanted to change that. I wanted to create a better world.”

SPEAKING OF CANINES: Does Vistein have a dog? Not for the last three years, and her housing situation prevents it now. Eventually she’d like a new one, an older rescue dog, either “a Siberian huskie or a malamute.”

PAYCHECK: Vistein works independently, “purposefully solo” as she puts it, which made us wonder, who pays for her work on behalf of coyotes? “I get paid two ways,” she said. She gives speeches, but her speaking fee is only $125, which doesn’t sound like it would go far unless she gave speeches every day (she doesn’t). And she inherited some money when her mother died. But that’s finite, so she’s exploring her options.

“I am striving to find out how I can earn a living where I can really work on what I want to do.”

Visit Vistein’s website, and her Farming with Coyotes in Maine page on Facebook for more information on her advocacy.

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