Coyotes inhabiting Long Island? It may happen sooner than you think. While there have only been two confirmed coyote sightings by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) on Long Island since 2013, eastern coyotes, a relative of the wolf, have been moving in this direction since the early 20th century. These German shepherd-like mammals are expected to slowly find their way into the region, which is the last area in the continental U.S. where they don’t exist. When they do, they will be the area’s top predator — which could lead to drastic changes to the local ecosystem.
“I don’t think it’s a question of if, I think it’s a question of just when,” Enrico Nardone, executive director of Seatuck Environmental Association, said. “They will sort of colonize Long Island and it’s just a matter of time. They’re not native, but the expansion of their range is sort of a natural occurrence.”
While it would require long-term studies to prove, the introduction of a hunter like the coyote could have positive impacts for an area like Long Island, which lacks a top predator after humans, according to Frank Vincenti, director of the Wild Dog Foundation, a grassroots organization on Long Island dedicated to wild canines.
“I don’t think there are any negatives in having biodiversity, and certainly predators in ecosystems, of course,” he said. “Long Island could only be better having a complete ecosystem. And that would be with a large carnivore.”
On Long Island, a proliferating population of white-tailed deer is causing problems, such as an increase in diseases carried by ticks that feed on deer. The high density also threatens the long-term viability of forest ecosystems, according to a report by the NYSDEC. Coyotes can have a positive impact on those populations where numbers are too high, according to Nardone.
“They kind of restore some balance,” he said. “When you have an ecosystem without an apex predator — things are out of balance. [With coyotes], you end up with a sort of a cascade of benefits as you restore the food web.”
Historically, coyotes called the deserts and prairies of much of the western U.S. home. In the last 100 to 150 years, coyotes have expanded their range in all directions, according to the Gotham Coyote Project, a group of researchers, educators and students working together to study the ecology of northeastern coyotes in New York City and the surrounding region. In the Northeast, their expansion was a response to human disturbance — the clearing of forest for farmland provided an open habitat very familiar to western coyotes, and animals that would outcompete or prey upon them, such as cougars and wolves, were eliminated by people. As the coyote’s range expanded, so did the ways they survived, and they were able to adapt to and conquer farmland, forested wilds, suburbs and cities.
Evidence indicates coyotes reached the Northeast in the early 1930s and 1940s, making Eastern coyotes a relatively new species in New York, according to the NYSDEC. They spread rapidly across the state over the next 40 to 50 years, and firmly established themselves there in the 1970s. New York City is just one of the many cities coyotes call home, according to the Gotham Coyote Project, and Long Island remains the last place in the continental U.S. without coyotes, putting NYC at the edge of the coyotes’ range.
“There are seven sites in the city that we know have coyotes,” said Chris Nagy, co-founder of Gotham Coyote Project and director of research at the Mianus River Gorge in Westchester. “The expansion slowed down because they’ve kind of filled up the big places in the Bronx. And so they kind of have to make this big jump into Queens and Long Island.”
This jump and the presence of a large population of coyotes on Long Island may take years, even a few decades, as it’s a slow process for them to navigate their way, settle and breed, Nagy said.
“What you’re going to have are these intrepid adventurers, single coyotes that have left the safety of their family pack,” said Chris Schadler, the New Hampshire and Vermont representative of Project Coyote and retired professor in the Department of Natural Resources at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s sort of like a frontier for them.”
Over the past seven years or so, Long Island has caught sight of a few of these lone wanderers.
“In 2013, the DEC confirmed the presence of one coyote in the Watermill/Bridgehampton area and we have received a handful of confirmed sightings of this single coyote each year,” Aphrodite Montalvo, public participation specialist at the NYSDEC, said. “In January 2017, sightings were reported in the Middle Island area but not confirmed. In the summer of 2018, a coyote sighting in the Roslyn/Searingtown area was confirmed through multiple recorded videos.”
Ultimately, the migration of coyotes into Long Island will depend on their ability to navigate busy transportation corridors and Long Island’s busy roadways, Montalvo said.
“This is the last place that they haven’t colonized yet,” Nardone said, “partly because this is one of the last places that they’re reaching as they continue their expansion, possibly because of the difficulty in getting across the train trestles and bridges, and then into a very dense part of Long Island. Once they get to Suffolk they’ll certainly have plenty more room and they’ll be fine.”
Once settled, Long Island has all the habitat — the food, water and cover — coyotes need, especially for a creature as adaptable as them, according to Schadler.
“The nature of this animal allows it to be incredibly adaptable — they can live anywhere, absolutely anywhere,” she said.
According to Nardone, the thought of living with coyotes near may be worrisome to some, but peaceful coexistence doesn’t have to be difficult.
“There’s going to be people up in arms about it, and worried about their pets and their kids,” he said. “But I tell people, they coexist in every other state, in every other part of the country, including places like Washington, D.C. and Chicago. There are hundreds of coyotes in those places, and there’s no reason to think that they won’t coexist peacefully here.”
Changing some habits and making sure the public is educated about coyotes is an important part of this coexistence, Schadler and Nardone said.
“Animal control officers first need to get educated in coyote ecology, and understand what coyotes can live on, and how people can change their habits a little bit to keep coyotes away from their backyard,” Schadler said. “Keep a lid on your trash. If you have a small dog, keep it on a leash. Don’t let your small dog out at night because there could be a coyote nearby, and a coyote will take a small dog. If you have a cat that you value, keep it inside.”
“People certainly can’t be feeding coyotes or providing food resources for them, because that’s where you run into trouble,” Nardone said. “The biggest piece is going to be sort of an education effort to convince people that this is not something that needs to be stopped and that we can coexist with these animals with some minor adjustments.”
“If people can change their habits a little bit and be a little bit coyote-aware, then they can live perfectly peacefully with coyotes,” Schadler said.