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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

There's much to admire about coyotes

Scientists say it's only a matter of time

Scientists say it's only a matter of time before coyotes take up residence on Long Island. Above, an Eastern coyote roams in the Appalachian Mountains. Credit: iStock

Humans love tales of survival. We applaud perseverance. We admire those who use their wits to adapt to a changing world.

And yet, we dislike the coyote.

I mention this because coyotes have those attributes, and because it's increasingly clear the species is going to make its way to Long Island. Scientists say it might take five years, it might take 10, it could be next month, but they're coming.

Hooray.

Of course, not everyone is going to roll out a welcome mat. Coyotes do provoke fear, however exaggerated the worry might be. Attacks on humans are extremely rare, but they have happened. Dogs and house cats are occasional victims, but mostly when they're unattended.

Coyotes, said Javier Monzón, an expert and postdoctoral fellow at Stony Brook University, "tend to promote feelings that are kind of strong but polarized. People either love them or hate them."

That dichotomy predates modern society. The coyote is an important figure in American Indian folklore. But while some tribes credit him with being the Creator, others say the coyote brought death into the world. All consider the animal a trickster, skilled at deception and humor. European colonizers reviled the coyote as cowardly and untrustworthy. It's not for nothing that Wile E. was a coyote.

In truth, coyotes are family-oriented and monogamous. They're intelligent and they're adaptable. How else could they survive and flourish in a human-dominated world?

Out West, they've been shot, trapped and poisoned. But they adjusted, and now they're found from coast to coast, and from Alaska to Panama. Long Island is the only major landmass in the continental United States without coyotes. Lone animals have been spotted in Queens and Staten Island and, last summer, in Bridgehampton. There have been sightings on Fishers Island and a breeding population is in the Bronx.

Wildlife biologists say it's only a matter of time before a self-sustaining group either swims to Long Island or, more likely, makes like humans and takes a bridge into Queens and then uses railroad track corridors to move east.

When they get here, let's applaud their ingenuity, give them a chance and see how it works out. They instantly will become the top predator in an abundant food chain -- other than humans, of course. We could view them as a partner, not a threat, when it comes to our exploding deer population. Coyotes won't solve the problem, but as efficient hunters of fawns, they'll help.

They'll most likely live in preserves, the pine barrens and other places isolated from humans; they're as wary of us as we are of them. But there will be interactions. We can deal with that as we do with many threats: minimize risk by changing behavior. For example, keep dogs on leashes and cats indoors. Nature will thank you: Outdoor cats, pet and feral, kill billions of birds and mammals in the United States every year. Coyotes taketh, but they might giveth, too.

The most interesting part of coyote expansion is the reminder that we are not the masters of our environment. We believe we're in control. But we're not. Despite our best efforts, stuff happens. We relearn that in tragic fashion with every major storm. And, in a gentler way, with coyotes in our woods.

"They've been persecuted, but they've expanded their range and number," said Mark Weckel, a conservation scientist at the American Museum of Natural History. "It's a very interesting success story."

Call me crazy, but I'm looking forward to being part of it.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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