New York State’s Most Successful Predators – Coyotes & Fishers

ALBANY: Roland Kays, PhD., Curator of Mammals of the New York State Museum, spoke at the May Save the Pine Bush vegetarian/vegan lasagna dinner at the First Presbyterian Church about coyotes and fishers. He began with a photo of the snout from one of the last wolves captured in the northeast. Dr. Kays remarked on the incredible snarl still visible on the snout and how he was the “Last wolf left in the northeast of the United States, and he still had an attitude about it and did not go down without a fight.” Wolves were driven out of the northeast United States by the late 1890s.

New York State started with a clean slate; because it was covered with a mile of ice and there were no animals until 10,000 years ago. Approximately 8,000 years ago, NY had a whole suite of crazy big animals: mammoths, mastodons, camels, bison, caribou, and giant ground sloths. Wolf-like creatures, such as coyotes, dire wolves, grey wolves and maybe red wolves lived here too. Coyotes and dire wolves evolved here over hundreds of thousands of years, but the grey wolf came with the humans from Asia over the Bering land bridge.

When humans came, there was a massive extinction of many animals. Dr. Kays hypothesis is that these animals were killed by over-hunting. Other people say it was climate change, but, the small mammals such as woodchucks, black bears, mice, rabbits, did not go extinct; only the big delicious mammals.

When Europeans first came here, they exterminated predators to a large extent. Dr. Kays showed a picture of a “circle hunt”. Hundreds of men would get together over tens of miles, beat drums, make a lot of noise, and drive all the animals to the center where they would be shot.

Wolves in Europe and Asia are known to attack humans, unlike wolves in America which are not. However, Europeans brought this fear of wolves with them and to protect their livestock, they killed the wolves so fast that there are almost no specimens left in museums.

Even though there were hardly any wolves left, some counties paid big bounties for a wolves. Between the deforestation and the bounty hunting, the wolves could not survive. Fishers declined too, because they have such beautiful fur.

That is the bad news. But, the good news is that both beavers and fishers have recovered in a big way. Two of the main reasons for the species to recovered are the re-growth of forests and today people follow rules. A hundred years ago, people would trap anything anywhere at any time. Now, there are strict regulations as to when you can trap, where you can go and how many animals can be taken and trappers respect that.

New York State is in a pretty natural state, in the grand scheme of things. It was into this environment that the coyotes move in. Coyotes moved in across the St. Lawrence seaway probably in the winter, moving into the capital district in the 1950s.

In the United States, we have wolves, coyotes and dogs, all of the species canis. Dr. Kays calls it “canis soupis” because all three of these animals can hybridize, which is unusual for mammals.

Coyotes are moving into urban areas. Coyotes don’t want to live in urban areas, they want to live in the woods. But, when the woods fill up with coyotes, they look for someplace to live. There are lots of deer and rabbits in urban areas, two of the coyotes favorite foods, As of course Save the Pine Bush members know, there is a giant dump in the Pine Bush, but, interestingly enough, only 1% of the coyotes diet was trash. People often think coyotes each trash, but coyotes only rarely eat trash. Coyotes will kill cats, but that too is rare.

However, coyotes don’t do very well in the Pine Bush, the mortality rate is about 80% per year, about equal parts killed by cars and being shot by hunters, almost all shot illegally.

Fishers, a 10-pound relative of the weasel that do not fish, are one of the only predators fast enough and vicious enough to kill porcupines.

In the Pine Bush, a fisher was trapped in Guilderland in 1999, which as far as Dr. Kays can determined, was the first fisher trapped in the area in 400 years. In 2000, Dr. Kays captured a fisher with a camera. Now, the fishers are every where in the Pine Bush.

Dr. Kays started to study fishers after capturing one on camera. They radio-collared four males and two females and discovered that the fishers ranged over quite a wide area from Route 90 to the Mohawk River.

Squirrels in urban areas have had it pretty easy in the last 100 years or so, but now, it appears that squirrels have a new predator – the fishers. Fishers can chase squirrels up trees and into their nests. Fishers are quite partial to sleeping on top of squirrel nests. Dr. Kays suggests that we keep an eye on the squirrels and see if they look a little more nervous.

In late February this year, a woman was taking out her trash in Glenville, and was bitten in the foot by a rabid fisher. To get the fisher off her foot, she grabbed a fire extinguisher to beat the fisher. The police came, tracked the fisher through the woods, and shot it. It was discovered that not only did the fisher have rabies, but it had one of Dr. Kays’ radio collars.

Dr. Kays had first trapped the fisher, “Roger“ in 2002 and tracked him until the battery ran out a year later. Roger mostly roamed near Black Creek and Altamont. But, five years later, Roger has made his way all the way to Glenville, where he met his fateful end.

Dr. Kays emphasized that it is really important that we learn how to live with predators. The first high profiled instance where a coyote attacked a human happened just a month ago in New Jersey. A toddler was playing in his back yard with his five-year-old cousin when a coyote attacked the toddler. The cousin was able to chase off the coyote, the toddler survived, but this incident made a lot of people scarred.

Its not hard to live with predators, there are just some things one needs to do.

The first thing is not to feed the animals. We don’t want predators to associate humans with food. We want predators to be a little bit afraid of people. Dr. Kays went on to the next thing – don’t feed the predators, don’t feed them and lastly, do not feed the animals.

By feeding animals, people are putting themselves at risk, the little kid down the block at risk, and their neighbors’ pets at risk. People think its cute to have animals come into their yard, but by feeding the animals, they are putting people at risk. For the most part, animals do two things – look for food and avoid death. If people can make there houses places where food is not found, that discourages the animals from coming around. Low-level of trapping and hunting coyotes is good because we don’t want coyotes to lose their fear of humans.

We should enjoy knowing the predators are out there and take pleasure in the fleeting rare views we may see of them when on our walks in the woods.