By JAMES O'NEILL | The Record

HACKENSACK, N.J. (AP) _ A lone coyote.

Wolf-like, with a long snout and bushy, black-tipped tail.

The staff at Upper School in Englewood Cliffs first spotted it several weeks ago walking through the school parking lot. It has also been seen ambling across a back field. The coyote got close enough to be recorded by the school's security cameras.

County animal control officers set up traps. The local police advised that students be kept indoors during recess.

The children have not been outside since.

The Record reports that in the past few years, coyotes have appeared on the ice-bound shores of Lake Tappan, in some woods in Hackensack, and at the reservoir in Woodland Park. One attacked a dog last spring in Elmwood Park. Residents of Trenton report that coyotes are roaming the streets of the state capital at night. So many have made Princeton their home that the town debated _ but ultimately dismissed _ the idea of hiring sharpshooters to cull the population.

And in Englewood, residents report hearing the eerie howls of coyotes at night.

The number of coyotes living _ and thriving _ in suburban New Jersey continues to rise. As one expert said, “They are here to stay.”

“Suburbs and urban areas have plenty of their prime food source _ small mammals,” said Anthony McBride, supervising biologist with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. “We have landscapes that harbor small mammals _ woodpiles, brushy areas that attract rabbits. We have cat colonies. They're opportunistic feeders. That's why they're there.”

Coyotes, a species of wild dog once confined to the West, have made a long, slow move through the Canadian Great Lakes region and down into Ohio, Pennsylvania and New England. Along the way, they mated with wolves, creating a new variety of coyote, one that is larger than its western cousin. Eastern coyotes weigh 20 to 50 pounds and look like a small German shepherd.

The first recorded coyote sighting in New Jersey was in Hunterdon County in 1939. The species spread slowly through the state, but numbers have increased significantly since 1980. Coyotes have now been documented in 400 towns from all 21 counties.

“They've been able to spread because we killed off the wolves and cougars, and most of the agriculture left the East Coast and forest grew back,” said Chris Nagy, director of research and land management with Mianus River Gorge, a non-profit nature preserve and conservation group in Westchester County, N.Y. “This is one of the few species doing quite well despite everything we've thrown at them.”

Though naturally leery of humans, coyotes can thrive in developed areas.

“Suburbs are a good habitat; they can switch their diet to whatever's plentiful,” Nagy said. “They are flexible in diet and behavior. They learn quickly to look both ways and cross streets.”

That food supply can on occasion include cats and small dogs. Besides the attack in Elmwood Park, coyotes killed a Chihuahua in Ringwood in 2013 and a 20-pound dog in Kinnelon in 2010. A few years back, authorities put up signs at Garrett Mountain Reservation in Woodland Park warning pet owners about coyotes in the area.

Coyoteattacks on humans are rare. There have been two recorded fatalities in North America, the most recent in 2009 in a national park in Nova Scotia.

In New Jersey, a child was bitten in 2007 in Middletown. Last October, a rabid coyote attacked a bow hunter in Black River Wildlife Management Area in Morris County. The hunter, from Cliffside Park, killed it with a knife, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Flat Rock Brook Nature Center in Englewood received a flurry of calls in early January from neighbors who reported seeing a coyote in their yard, said Steve Wiessner, the center's executive director. Some thought the animal was a wolf _ but wolves haven't been seen here since the 1850s.

People in the area have also heard coyotes calling at night _ which makes sense, given that January through March is their mating season. Coyote pups often stay with their parents for a year, so the uptick in sightings might be related to a yearling or two seeking new territory after being pushed out of the fold, Wiessner said. The latest sighting came early Friday morning, when a coyote was seen at Witte Memorial Field in Englewood Cliffs.

Englewood Cliff's Upper School and Memorial Field are situated between two large natural areas _ Flat Rock to the west and the Palisades Interstate Park to the east _ so the coyote or coyotes are likely just using the school or park to pass between those areas.

“We've kept the students inside,” said Englewood Cliffs Superintendent Robert Kravitz, in part because of the coyote, in part because of the cold. “I'm taking the recommendations of the Police Department and animal control into consideration.”

The cautious reaction, while understandable, runs counter to what experts advise. “Coyotes have a natural fear of people and they can lose that when they see people always retreating from them,” McBride said.

Air horns and flash lights can be used to scare away coyotes. “Throw rocks towards them, spray them with a hose, yell,” Nagy said. “Some people install motion-sensitive exterior lights or sprinklers.”

One way to keep coyotes away is to reduce their food supply. That means not putting out garbage until the morning of pickup, and clearing yards of brush that attracts rabbits. Experts say dogs should be kept in fenced areas, and cats _ and their food _ should be inside. “Coyotes will feed on the cat food and the cats,” McBride said.

If there's trouble with an aggressive coyote, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife will respond. “If a coyote seems comfortable coming within 10 feet of a human, we'll try to catch and remove it,” McBride said. But trapping coyotes is not very effective, experts say, because removing one might just open the territory to another with even less fear of humans.

Humans can actually benefit from the presence of coyotes in the landscape, said John Maguranis, a Massachusetts animal control officer with Project Coyote, a coalition that promotes “compassionate conservation.” “They are free rodent control,” he said. “Without a top predator, rats, mice and rabbits start getting out of control. Coyotes can do a lot of good for us as long as we let them know to give us space.”

In Englewood Cliffs, the school superintendent ultimately hopes to turn the coyote sightings into a teaching moment. Seeing more wildlife in the suburbs, such as wild turkeys and coyotes, is “just a part of nature,” Kravitz said.

“It's an opportunity to learn from this where natural habitats are all around us and how they're changing,” he said. “It's a natural approach to learning.”

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Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com