For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.
A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus:
Human pressures on the Shawangunk ecosystem have varied greatly over the last three centuries, as demands for forest resources came and went in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the use of land for agriculture peaked and subsided in the 19th and 20th centuries. “Nearly all forests (of the Shawangunks) were cleared (at least once) except for inaccessible talus slopes, cliffs, and remote swamps.” By the late 19th century, one estimate suggests that “only 25% of the state’s total land area was forest cover.” I always like to say as a rule of thumb, that as a vegetation community goes, so go all of the associated species. But then, for some species, new opportunities emerge. The best field ecologists are those like Daniel Smiley at Mohonk, familiar with the ecosystem around them, and out there observing daily and carefully documenting change.
The decline and complete loss of the native Wolf (Canis lupus) from Hudson Valley forests directly from human pressures is pretty well documented. This occurred in earnest after the arrival of the first settlers in the 1670s, with an all-out assault on the species, which was reported to take a “fearful toll of the settlers livestock.” Local historian Katherine T. Terwilliger wrote, “wolves were a great danger to the farm animals, and bounties for their destruction long had been paid in parts of Ulster County. In 1701 New York State law permitted this county to award nine shillings to ‘whatsoever Christian shall kill a grown wolf’ with lesser sums for a younger wolf. Later, panthers were added to the list” (“Wawarsing, Where the Streams Wind: Historical Glimpses of the Town”, 1977). With the heavy loss of forest habitat and the intense harassment and killing by humans, the last wolves in Ulster County were documented. Historian Ralph LeFevre reported that in the mid-1820s, “one of the last wolves was trapped by (John) Fuller was on the Mullenix place on the mountains,” and “one (of the last) caught on the Mathusalem Eltinge Farm, which extended from Springtown up to Bontecoe Point.” In the winter of 1826 or 1827, “the very last wolf in this portion of the country which was trapped by (John) Fuller in the winter,” in the area of Libertyville.
And so it was, a surprising observation some 124 years later, on 18 April 1951, when Dan’s brother Keith, “reported seeing an animal in the upper Kleinekill Fields,” below the half-mile level on Oakwood Drive. He reported to Dan, “it was the color of a Gray Fox but larger, and did not act like a fox.” Keith told Dan, he felt it was similar to Coyotes he had observed in California. Subsequent newspaper accounts of similar animals led Dan in 1957 to correspond with Dr. William J. Hamilton, Jr., Professor of Zoology, at Cornell University. In his letter back to Dan, Dr. Hamilton reported that he had “no records of coyotes from Ulster County, but they come to my lab weekly from the Adirondacks and western New York counties.”
By the close of the 1960s, however, it was clear that the coyote had successfully spread to the Hudson Valley and beyond. What was influencing this steady spread? Only decades later did we get proof of our hypothesis that landscape change was offering new opportunities for some species. Mohonk Preserve Research Associate Heather Fener (MA Columbia University, Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, 2001) investigated the question of coyote colonization of New York, and found that the coyote seemed to “favor predominately disturbed landscapes with younger forests….indicate a strong correlation and statistical relationship between anthropogenic land use changes, and coyote range extension.”
In 1966, there was finally an “authentic record….in Taconic Park, Putnam Co.,” according to staff at the N.Y.S. Conservation Department. Reliable Shawangunk Mountain records began coming in to Dan and the Research Staff in the 1970s from Spring Farm, Home Farm, and the Minnewaska State Park Preserve. In the 1980s, regular accounts were received from excited staff and local residents hearing coyote family groups howling, barking, and whining close by at night, an unusual sound here in the East. They were sometimes heard howling at the noonday fire sirens! I remember well that in 1982 and 1984 local kills were finally “officially” confirmed as coyotes. It now had spread and successfully adapted to inhabit large suburban landscapes. A large White-tail Deer population also provided a major food source for them, but mostly in the form of carrion (Mohonk Preserve Ridgelines, Winter, pg. 8–9). As we felt when we wrote this Research Report, “the coyote (has successfully) adjust(ed) to persecution of agricultural interests and the restraints on its life style imposed by civilization.”
But, how should we consider this coyote? It’s early identification and wolf-like size and shape did cause confusion. It is a larger taller and heavier animal than the Western Coyote, it exhibits varying dog-like colors from blonde to dark brown, is very adaptable and behaves differently. Biologist Roland Keys, North Carolina State University, thinks the right name for this animal is the “Eastern Coyote.” Recent studies of the DNA of this “hybrid canid” shows some 64% of is heritage is coyote (Canis latrans), 13% Gray Wolf (Canis lupus), 13% Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon), and 10% dog (Canis lupus familiaris). These numbers tend to vary a little as to testing methodology and geographic origin of the animal. This variability shows “a large intermixing population of coyotes across the continent.” Dr. Keys feels that “for now, we have the Eastern Coyote, an exciting new type of coyote in the midst of an amazing evolutionary transition.”