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CoyoteCoyotes on Long Island?

Let’s get right to the bottom line: Are there coyotes on Long Island? Yes. Are they coming soon to a natural area—or even a neighborhood—near you? Almost certainly. Do we know when? Not exactly. But biologists are getting ready.

While coyotes have never roamed across Long Island, it’s one of the only places in the country that they haven’t settled yet. But at this point, it’s just a matter of time.

Coyotes, Canis latrans, historically lived only in the western United States, where they thrived in the prairies, high deserts and wide-open country for which they are especially well suited. Their range was kept in check and limited to these niche habitats by their larger cousin, the wolf, Canis lupis, which out-competed them in mountains and forests, especially on the east coast.  

But when our merciless persecution of wolves in the 19th Century nearly eradicated them from the country, coyotes found themselves with some room to roam. And roam they did! Over the past 100 years, coyotes expanded their range to include the entire continental United States and much of Canada and Central America. They’ve succeeded in every possible habitat, from mountain wilderness to coastal areas to suburban neighborhoods. They’ve even moved into urban areas. A healthy population roams Washington, D.C. and Chicago is reportedly host to as many as several thousand coyotes. A few years ago one made headlines when it casually walked into a Quiznos on Chicago’s South Side and sat down in a beverage cooler. Talk about being comfortable around people!

The fact is most North American cities are home to coyotes. The adaptable animals settle into parks and industrial areas, survive on a wide range of food, and become primarily nocturnal. There’s even some evidence that urban coyotes live longer and have a higher survival rate than their rural cousins.

Still, coyotes on Long Island? The idea is not as far-fetched as you might think. There are estimated to be more than 20,000 coyotes in New York and over 5,000 in New Jersey. West Chester has a thriving population and coyotes are firmly established in the parklands of the Bronx. Think that’s as far as they’ll go? Guess again. They’ve been spotted at Columbia University, in Central Park and at half a dozen other locations in Manhattan over the past decade. Long Island’s first official siting came in early 2004 when a coyote was seen walking on ice near Rockaway Inlet. More recently, scientists have been monitoring an individual that has established itself in a small natural area in northern Queens.

They’re coming for sure. It’s just a matter of time before more individuals—who push the limits of their range in early spring during the breeding season to look for new territory—venture across bridges or swim across to Long Island. Once they get a foothold here, it won’t be long before they expand across the island.

And despite anecdotal stories about coyotes attacking children or pets, the truth is they’re very compatible with human habitation. They generally stay out of our way, venture out mostly at night, and feed primarily on natural prey and plants. In fact, they could do us some good in their role as predators by restoring balance to our terrestrial ecosystems and helping to control populations of groundhogs, deer, geese, and even feral cats (fear not cat lovers: a recent study shows that while coyotes reduce cats in natural areas, they have little impact on domestic or urban populations).

My own experience with coyotes dates back to the early 1990s, when I got my first good look at these magnificent animals in Pennsylvania. I was making my way down off a mountain cliff where I had spent an hour watching the sun sink and contemplating the bucolic Appalachian vista.

I had made my way off the steepest portion of the mountain and was scrambling over a large rocky outcropping when, looking below me, I caught the motion of a gray coyote not more than a hundred feet away. I had seen them before, but always at a distance and in fleeting moments before they disappeared into the woods. This time, my approach from upwind and the limited sound of my boots on the rock had allowed me to go undetected. The animal slowly walked between two slabs of bedrock, jumped up on a jagged protruding rock, and stood like a statute, with the setting sunlight illuminating her profile. She was big (about the size of a German shepherd), powerful looking, and beautiful.

And then they came: first two, then another, and then a fourth – coyote pups, slowly following their mother out from under the rocks. They stood together for a moment and surveyed the scene. Then in an instant as if someone had flicked a switch they started running, jumping, and tumbling around together like a litter of puppies. Their mother stood nearby, calm and noble, indulging their play before a night of hunting. It was a magical moment. I watched mesmerized for ten minutes before the approaching darkness forced me to surrender my position.

At the first crunch from under my feet, the mother let out a quick yelp and the five of them disappeared back into their sanctuary among the rocks. I made my way down the mountain through the day’s last light and headed home with a stir in my soul and a smile on my face.

I’ve had the good fortune to encounter grizzly bears in Alaska, gators in Mississippi, big horn sheep in Wyoming, and many other impressive wildlife species across the country. But few experiences match my moments with the coyotes on that Pennsylvania mountain. I have to admit, I’d sure welcome the chance to see one again here on Long Island.

By Enrico Nardone

Photo by Rick Cameron (c) 2011

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