At Shepherd’s Hey Farm on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in Clifton Park, Larry Syzdek knows how to protect his sheep from coyotes.
“About 15 years ago, we lost nearly half of our lambs to coyotes, so we realized if we didn’t do anything we weren’t going to have any sheep left,” said Syzdek. “So, we got some llamas. They deter the coyotes. They intimidate them and chase them away. The llamas have acted as a really good guardian for our sheep.”
For most upstate New Yorkers, a coyote sighting is a rare thing, even though they are sprinkled all around the Capital Region in suburban areas as well as rural farmland. There’s even a small community in Albany’s Pine Bush Preserve, hemmed in by roadways with heavy traffic. But, despite the animal’s proximity to us two-legged animals and the government’s attempt at one time to extirpate them, the coyote continues to thrive. And, according to wildlife experts, the coyote is much more an integral part of the ecosystem than it is a nuisance or threat to humans.
“It might be the public perception, but coyotes as a species are not causing problems,” said Siena College assistant professor Dan Bogan, whose doctoral studies at Cornell University included closely researching the animals and their interaction with humans. “They are living in the suburbs and sometimes in urban areas throughout North America, and if they are impacted by disease or being fed by humans, that’s what may lead to eventual conflict. But that happens very sporadically.”
So, if you raise sheep or other small animals, buy a llama or two. And, if you have pets, keep a close eye on them. Cats and small dogs are sometimes prey for the coyotes, but are more often seen as competitors. The coyotes, meanwhile, have no natural predator, except man.
“I think we’re well past the point where the coyote population is growing rapidly,” said Bogan. “It seems to have leveled off, but now we have resident animals all around us. They are imbedded into our natural system, and while we don’t see them that much we see other signs and we can certainly hear them.”
Here to stay
Michael Clark, the Region 4 Wildlife Manager with the Department of Environmental Conversation, says coyotes are here to stay, and at present are not considered a problem by the DEC.
“They’re part of the landscape these days, and they’re doing what they do,” said Clark, a Columbia County native who has been with the DEC for 16 years. “There are individual coyotes that have become a problem, but that is not common. I think they’re fascinating animals who serve a vital role in our ecosystem.”
Most of the issues that come up with coyotes revolve around food.
“They’re very adaptable, and pretty opportunistic,” said Clark. “If there is a food source nearby they will take advantage of it. Garbage, and leaving cat or dog food outside can cause problems. But if you remember to remove the food, that will remove the animals. The problem is solved.”
Although wildlife experts say coyotes pose no real threat to humans, there have been two incidents in North America over the past four decades that have had tragic consequences. In 1981 near Glendale, California, a 3-year-old girl left unaccompanied momentarily was killed by a coyote, and in 2009 a 19-year-old woman hiking alone in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia was killed by a pack of coyotes.
“There are also hundreds of people since the 1980s that have been bitten and scratched by coyotes,” said Bogan. “These incidents may stick out in our memory but they are very rare. If people feel they have a problem coyote that is pushing the bounds, then they should contact the DEC. But just seeing a coyote doesn’t mean there is a problem. If they move closer than 100 or 50 feet, yell, do something to scare them away. Wave your arms. We have to keep them moving so they don’t get too accustomed to people.”
And even in close quarters like the Albany Pine Bush, coyotes haven’t become a problem. Neil Gifford, Conservation Director at the Pine Bush Preserve, heard a pack of them just last week.
“The siren went off at the Rapp Road Firehouse, and the coyotes started howling in response to it,” said Gifford, a Johnstown native who started working at the Pine Bush in 1997. “They are here, we don’t know exactly what the population is, and we have not had any conflicts or problems with them in the preserve. They are an important part of our ecosystem. They help us control the rabbits and the squirrels, which helps us manage the plant life so that the preserve can continue to support things like the New Karner butterfly.”
From west to east
When America was first settled by the Europeans in the 16th century, there were very few coyotes east of the Mississippi River. As the wolf population began to dwindle in the Northeast, coyotes started showing up in New York in the 1920s.
“When Americans were heading westward, no one encountered a coyote until they reached the 98th meridian, which was at the edge of the Great Plains,” said author Dan Flores, whose 2016 book “Coyote America,” is on the New York Times Best Sellers List. “Lewis and Clark, two guys from Virginia and Pennsylvania who had grown up in Colonial America, never saw a coyote until they got to present day South Dakota, and they thought it was some kind of fox.”
A recently retired professor of environmental science at the University of Montana, Flores lives in northern New Mexico and has produced nearly a dozen other books about the American West.
“I taught environmental history, so I appreciate how us as humans are constantly driving one species or another to near extinction,” said Flores. “What stood out about the coyote to me is how it persevered. We threw everything at them, some real haymakers, and to say they were persecuted is not too strong a term. Our government allowed an attempt to eradicate them, but they not only survived, they spread across North America.”
Coyotes are also showing up in parts of New York City, a fact Flores mentioned in an opinion piece he did for the New York Times in August of this year.
“Coyotes engaged in their own manifest destiny, and instead of going from east to west they went from west to east,” said Flores. “They tracked across Denver to Chicago and finally New York City. After the shock of seeing them, I think most people have learned how to cope with them. They’re not a real threat to us, and to me they’re a very sympathetic creature. I think they’re amazing.”
Nancy Engel, director of the Thacher Park Nature Center, is also a big fan.
“I’ve heard talk about people saying they’re hearing them less this summer, but I don’t know,” said Engel, who lives in East Berne. “We’re not far from the park and we heard them just last weekend. I haven’t heard anyone having problems with them, and that could be because they’re not real acclimated to people around here so much. They’re still afraid. But I love to hear the howling. It’s one of the reasons why I love living in the woods.”
The coyotes seen in the Capital Region are eastern coyotes, who resemble a German Shepherd and are a bit bigger than the western coyote. The larger size, according to the DEC, may be due to some inbreeding with wolves, most likely having occurred in Canada where wolf and coyote populations adjoin each other. According to DEC estimates, there are 30,000 coyotes in New York.
“They have this impressive adaptive ability that has helped them thrive while the numbers of other large carnivores has dwindled,” said Bogan. “They’re a very flexible animal and they persevere. I have a profound respect for them.”