Preparing For Coyotes

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On Monday, two dozen wildlife biologists convened at Hofstra University—some from the Long Island region in person, and others by conference call from as far away as California—to plan for the arrival of a new species on Long Island: the coyote.The meeting was organized by Dr. Russ Burke of Hofstra University, a colleague who lent me a graduate student to help with my spotted turtle research in Napeague State Park back in 2005, and Dr. Tim Green of Brookhaven National Lab, a colleague with whom I founded the Long Island Natural History Conference last year.

Burke and Green opened the meeting with a statement: “All our ongoing wildlife studies on Long Island will be impacted by the arrival and establishment of this interesting and adaptive carnivore.”

Their concern is not that coyotes will adversely impact their study animals. In fact, Burke pointed out that coyotes may eventually reduce the unusually high density of raccoons at his Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge study site, where he is monitoring diamondback terrapins. Raccoons there are a significant predator of terrapin eggs. And Green commented that coyotes may reduce numbers of feral cats and deer, the former reducing predation of birds and the latter enabling the heavily browsed forest understory to recover. Both are likely to increase populations of ground nesting birds.

The concern shared by all was that an opportunity to carefully monitor and record the dramatic shifts in our ecosystems created by the coyote might be lost.

Long Island is the largest island in the continental United States, and possibly the only major island in the coyote’s current range that is not colonized by a breeding pair. In “pre-settlement” times, the coyote’s range was limited to the Great Plains. By 1900, it had expanded westward to the Pacific Ocean, southward into Central America, and northward into Canada and Alaska.

During the 1900s, coyotes expanded eastward, becoming established in New York and New England in the 1940s and 1950s and quickly moving northeastward into the Canadian Maritimes during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1986, a coyote pup was hit by a car in Newfoundland. I know this wily creature is very adaptable, but Newfoundland? That’s amazing!

The coyote is now found in every state except Hawaii, every Canadian province, and every Central American country except Panama.

Along the way east, genetic research revealed that the original Great Plains stock interbred with domestic dogs and wolves, producing a larger animal that displays somewhat different behavior from its western counterpart. Both eastern and western coyotes are considered the same species: Canis latrans.

Our plan is to coordinate research efforts and duplicate monitoring studies at several sites throughout Long Island, noting species composition and population densities of the wide variety of prey utilized by coyotes, as well as each site’s flora and densities of select non-prey species. An example of the latter might be ticks.

We can then compare the changes at each site before and after coyotes are established. What types of habitat will the coyotes initially utilize here on Long Island? What impact will they have on our deer population, and what will be the cascade impact on the vegetation deer browse and the ticks that use deer as a host? Will our red fox population decline, will it cease its wild fluctuations cycles, and will we continue to witness the dramatic cases of mange that correspond to high numbers of foxes? Will our feral cat colonies disappear? Will the coyote hinder ground nesting birds and shorebirds through predation, or will they help these species by reducing fox, cat and raccoon predators? And how will Long Islanders deal with this new species?

This is an interesting opportunity that we hope to accurately monitor and study.

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