Despite the trouble that wildlife is in around the globe, Long Island is in the paradoxical position of welcoming a new top carnivore: The eastern coyote.
Coyotes historically lived only in the western and central United States. Their range was limited to niche habitats by larger predators, particularly wolves, which dominated richer, forested habitats to the east.
But with humans clearing forests and persecuting larger predators, coyotes found themselves with some room to roam. Over the past 100 years, coyotes have expanded their range to include the entire continental United States and southern Canada.
Coyotes have succeeded in every possible habitat, from the taiga of Canada to the citrus groves of Florida. They’ve even settled comfortably into many cities and suburban areas in North America. The adaptable animals (“behaviorally plastic generalists,” as scientists say) manage well on the margins of human habitation. They inhabit out-of-the-way places, survive on a wide range of food, and avoid humans by being most active at night.
Long Island is now the only major land mass in the continental United States that coyotes haven’t colonized. But the process is underway. As firmly ensconced populations in Westchester County and the Bronx grow, young adults are increasingly being pushed to explore Long Island for available territory.
Individual coyotes have been exploring Long Island for more than a decade, but the first den wasn’t documented until 2016, when a litter of eight pups was reared in a woodlot near LaGuardia Airport. When people started feeding them, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey decided it had no choice but to “protect the safety of its employees.” All but one of the coyotes were trapped and killed.
Despite the tragic results at LaGuardia, the coyotes have kept coming. With several mating pairs having established territories in northern Queens and Nassau County, coyotes seem to have finally gained the foothold on Long Island that will be the springboard for their expansion. Scientists expect coyotes will colonize the Island within a decade.
As word of their arrival spreads, Long Islanders will reasonably be concerned about safety. But coyotes have demonstrated that they can live harmoniously in proximity to people, even in densely populated areas. While some conflicts are inevitable, most can be avoided. But only if we take the simple, tested steps to prevent them.
The key is to ensure coyotes maintain their natural aversion to humans and stay away from us. Most significantly, this involves not making food sources available near homes or businesses. Studies have shown that even urban coyotes primarily rely on a natural diet (e.g., rodents, rabbits, plants, insects), but they are opportunistic and will take advantage of food sources we create.
This includes not intentionally feeding them. But crucially, it also includes eliminating unintentional sources of food, such as garbage or pet food. It also means closely monitoring small dogs and cats, especially after dusk – they are potential prey and the onus is on us to protect them.
We know coyotes will colonize Long Island. And we know they can make good neighbors. We also know that by replacing missing apex predators, they’ll have a positive impact on the Island’s overall ecological health. The only question is whether we’ll modify our behaviors and take the necessary steps to minimize negative interactions. In other words, the question is not whether coyotes will be good neighbors, the question is rather, will we?
Enrico G. Nardone is the executive director of the Seatuck Environmental Association in Islip.