If you’re a Westchester resident, it’s safe to say you have at the very least heard of the coyotes that live right here in our backyards. Whether you’ve seen them yourself, heard them howling in the night, or know a neighbor who has had some sort of encounter, nearly everyone has some version of a coyote story. While we likely all have that in common, where we may differ is in our opinions of coyotes.
Let’s talk about coyotes’ role in nature. In the Westchester area, coyotes occupy the role of apex predator, which means as the top members of the food chain they help maintain the health and balance of all other species “below” them on the food web. The ability of an apex predator to persist is a reliable indicator that an ecosystem is healthy and balanced. Why is it so important for our ecosystem to maintain balance? Without balance, there are inevitable and unsustainable booms in populations of other animals. Take deer, for example. We are all familiar with the over-population issue of white-tailed deer in Westchester. Frequent vehicle collisions, devastated home gardens, and increased cases of Lyme disease are just a few of the symptoms of the growing problem. In areas with a strong predator presence, populations are not only kept in check but are also proven to be healthier overall, as predators typically target the ailing members of a herd thereby limiting the spread of disease. Perhaps less apparent in our everyday life is the over-browsing of forest understory. By curbing deer numbers, predators preserve forest integrity because deer will not over-forage an area. Forests here are largely stripped of their vital forest floor vegetation, the absence of which has detrimental impacts on ground-nesting bird populations, as well as small mammal habitat. In regions with a hearty predator presence, prey populations are naturally maintained at a capacity in which the environment can thrive.
Now, understandably, talk of a robust predator presence in suburban areas is bound to put some people on edge. Little Red Riding Hood did a real number on us. Add to that our sensationalized media coverage and one would be led to believe that our wildlife is sitting in wait, plotting to ambush us and our pets. Yet the reality is, wildlife would prefer to have nothing to do with us.
Which brings me back to: coyotes.
Coyotes need a new PR rep. One of the most maligned species in all of North America, they are a favored scapegoat for suburban—and many rural—environments. Labeled varmints and pest species, mutants and blood-thirsty killers, coyotes barely stand a chance against our preconceived notions about them. Four hundred years ago, European settlers arrived on the shores of North America with their fables featuring “big bad wolves” and other dangerous beasts, and—among other atrocities—began to eradicate large carnivores by the millions. To this day, we maintain a scientifically unsound determination to eliminate every large or mid-sized carnivore with whom we share our landscape.
Coyotes, however, have a gift and a curse: their adaptability. Equally capable of thriving in the plains, the forest, the desert, among other regions, the flexibility of the coyote is something at which we should marvel. More recently our increased encroachment on their habitat as well as the extirpation of coyotes’ natural predators, such as wolves and cougars, provided an open invitation for their range expansion eastward. We must consider the fact that our suburban and urban spaces provide—be it intentional or not—ample access to food, water, and shelter for these clever canines. Why wouldn’t they leap at the opportunity to live here? Just think of the real estate listing: a few minutes’ walk from a top-rated restaurant (suburbia is rodent-central), lakefront property (those ponds, streams, and man-made lakes are great watering holes), and very little crime (no natural predators in sight!).
That is of course if you don’t consider humans a predator.
Due to the abundance of misinformation and misunderstanding of coyotes, many people still wish for the complete annihilation of this vital keystone species. Yet, science has shown that removal of coyotes actually begets more coyotes. How? Reducing the coyote population means more abundant resources for the survivors. Access to ample resources means greater ability to care for pups. Though lethal control appears to provide a temporary dip in numbers, there is ultimately an overall increase as early as the next year. Rather than lethal removal, studies have shown that the best way to mitigate human-coyote conflict is to instead manage ourselves.
The key to our cohabitation lies in our active practice of coexistence techniques. First, we must address and remove any and all sources of human-related food access—be they intentional or unintentional. This means securing our garbage cans, recycling, and compost bins so animals cannot gain access. Feeding our pets indoors, cleaning up the yard of fallen fruit or food debris, and keeping bird feeders tidy (an oft-overlooked attractant to coyotes as birdseed inevitably draws small mammals to your yard). It also includes discussing these methods with our neighbors and holding one another accountable.
On the occasion that a coyote does wander into your yard, the next step is to employ hazing techniques. Hazing is the act of scaring off an animal to reinforce their natural wariness of humans. This involves using loud noises and exaggerated movements to frighten coyotes away. Though they are highly valuable members of our ecosystem, we can reap those benefits while still fortifying their caution toward us.
Our relationship with coyotes does not have to be a contentious one. After hundreds of years of persecution, the fact is that coyotes are here to stay. It us up to us to employ our best available wildlife management strategy: managing our own behaviors. The risk of living with coyotes is minimal. The benefits are great. We just have to take it upon ourselves to make sure our relationship remains one of understanding and cooperation. In the words of environmentalist and author Marc Bekoff, “Too often, we cause ecological problems and animal suffering because we think of ourselves as the only beings who matter.” In an age in which we are teetering on the verge of ecological collapse, it is about time we start focusing our efforts on coexistence.
Dana Goin is the wildlife outreach specialist of the Wolf Conservation Center, located in South Salem.