Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Coyote in Wolf's Clothing

Coyotes are thought to be recent arrivals in New England, first noted in New Hampshire in 1944. By the 1980s, this canid had spread throughout the state. Wolves were here first, but were eliminated ("extirpated") from the region by the late 1800s, a result of unregulated hunting, habitat loss, and decline in prey (moose, deer, beaver, caribou). Coyotes expanded eastward from the midwest, taking advantage of the demise of the wolf in the region. The relationship between coyotes and wolves in northern New England, New York, and Canada to the north is a complicated and evolving story, ecologically and politically.

New England coyotes are big, nearly twice the size of the western coyote, although they are the same species. Analysis of DNA shows no coyote/dog crosses in the northeast, a cross known as a "coydog." However, our northeastern coyotes (Canis latrans) have a mix of wolf blood, and resemble the endangered gray wolf (Canis lupus). As we all know from watching the Yellowstone wolves on television, wolves are highly social pack animals. Eastern coyotes mostly hang together as pairs or alone, but also show some pack behavior. Some argue that the coyote-wolf cross that we likely have here deserves designation as a separate species -- the Eastern wolf (Canis lycaon). This is not yet accepted among wildlife professionals.

January to March is breeding season for coyotes. The male and female help raise the 4 to 8 pups, that are born in May. Coyotes are quite vocal, yip-howling when pack members reunite. The breeding behavior of coyotes is the main reason that coyote-dog crosses are unlikely. Although it is biologically possible for them to mate, a domestic dog will not stay with a female to help care for the pups. Without this parental care, the pups will die. This doesn't mean that coyotes and dogs aren't interested in each other and wouldn't play together if given the chance.

Our friend and neighbor Phil took these pictures a week ago as he and his wife Sharon watched a coyote approach their 16-month old golden retriever Sammie.

Phil relates that Sammie and the coyote ran back and forth along the back of the mowed lawn (the edge of the invisible dog fence) for about 10 minutes. Then the coyote decided to head back to the wooded wetland. Sammie "jumped" the fence, apparently her collar was too loose. She seemed to like her new friend. Sammie returned home. And the coyotes regularly wander through her yard, mostly at night and when Sammie is inside.

Eastern coyotes, like their western brethren, are generalists. That is they are adaptable and eat a variety of foods - mice, squirrels, woodchucks, house cats, fawns, insects, fruits, frogs, garbage. Mostly small stuff. Wolves, of course, eat large animals, depending on the pack to help bring down their prey. This indicates that the two species in the northeast, although related by blood, still occupy separate niches.

The political complications arise from differences in the abundance of the two species. Coyotes are common and in this region most states allow open, year-round hunting, even night hunting in some places. Wolves are on the federal endangered species list and are managed according to distinct populations. The Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountain populations were, just in the last month, proposed for removal from the endangered species list, given the success of reintroduction efforts. In Wyoming and the rest of the lower 48 states, the gray wolf remains on the endangered species list.

The nearest breeding population of wolves to New England is thought to be north of the St. Lawrence River in Ontario and Quebec. During the past 10 years, several wolves (perhaps more) have been killed in Maine, Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts. They were killed because they were thought to be coyotes, and taking a coyote is legal. Killing a wolf is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. Similarities between the Eastern coyote and the wolf makes distinction in the field difficult. The wolves killed were only identified through DNA analysis, and there still is uncertainty about the source of these wolves. Are they traveling across the St. Lawrence in winter on the rare occasions when it is frozen? Are wolves starting to disperse back into historic wolf range? Should northeastern wolves be considered a distinct population? How do we protect the wolf while allowing open season on the coyote? Should coyotes continue to be killed at current levels, since it does not affect population size (coyotes respond by having more pups)?

Someday, sooner than later, we may have a wolf pack roaming the region, just like in Yellowstone. Politics aside, how cool is that! In the meantime, enjoy the yip-howls of the coyotes and maybe keep your small pets within sight.

1 comment:

  1. To the best of my knowledge the jury is still out on whether or not the eastern coyote is a recent arrival.

    There is much historical record of "brush wolves" that were extirpated or driven away by colonists. Their descriptions of the brush wolf were different from the timber wold, they noted it was a smaller breed of wolf.

    There are lots of theories about this, and it will be interesting with time to unravel this mystery.

    As you note there are some differences between the eastern and western coyote. Eastern's are larger for one thing. I have also read that eastern coyote has scent glands between their toes, as do wolves. I have no pernonal knowledge if this is true or not.

    What is more confusing is the recent return of the wolf. One was shot in Shelburne, MA last year. They sent the carcass for positive ID, and sure enough it was a Timber Wolf. In these parts, people claim to see wolves frequently, but in my mind most of them are large coyotes.

    Nevertheless and interesting topic.

    I really like your blog.