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March - April 2008

Nature of Wild: Wolf, coyote or dog? 

The coyote has been studied intensely for a longtime.  Yet, until recently, there were misconceptions about its basic taxonomy and behavior.  Modern genetic studies have uncovered new information with management implications for both the coyote and its relative, the wolf.

Studies of DNA indicate the coyotes in the Eastern U.S. are the result of past inter breeding of coyotes and wolves.  That has led to substantial genetic and even behavioral differences between coyotes in the Eastern U.S. and their western counterparts.

Some debate persists, but it is pretty clear that the Eastern coyote should either be considered a separate subspecies of coyote, or perhaps a wolf.  They are the result of hybridization with the Algonquin, or red, wolf.  From New York to Maine, about 20 percent of “coyotes” have measurable red wolf DNA and another five percent have dog DNA.  The interbreeding with red wolves came over a long period of time as coyotes migrated eastward and encountered red wolves, which once extended as far south as the Carolinas.   This explains why many Eastern coyotes reach 60 pounds and sport the long legs usually associated with wolves.  Eastern coyotes also sometimes hunt in packs, a typical wolf behavior that is not exhibited often by western coyotes.  The impact of coyotes inbreeding with dogs is of almost no consequence because the so-called “coydogs” rarely survive in the wild.

Examining genetic relationships in the wild canids (dog family) is not just an academic exercise.  Millions of dollars have been spent by the federal government trying to reintroduce the red wolf to North Carolina.  But about half of the red wolves released into the wild bred with coyotes.  Since biologists discovered this, they have attempted to manage the interbreeding by reducing numbers of coyotes and hybrids in the red wolf management area.  But the cost-efficiency of the effort is now suspect at best.

Recent genetic studies suggest the Eastern timber wolf was originally a distinct species, not a subspecies of the larger gray wolf of Western North America, or a gray wolf-coyote hybrid.  But eventually, it bred with both gray wolves and coyotes over much of its range, and the distinction was forever blurred.

The Eastern wolf is not found in significant numbers in the U.S.; only one was verified (in Maine) in recent years.  But they are common in Eastern Canada as close as 50 miles from the Maine border.

Michigan’s wolves, which number at least several hundred in the Upper Peninsula, are gray wolves, which often kill coyotes, but could breed with them where coyote numbers are large and wolves few.  Certainly, if wolves continue to enter the Lower Peninsula one at a time or in small, weakly-established packs, wolf-coyote interbreeding might be a possibility.

These recent findings demonstrate that modern genetic studies should be considered indispensable wildlife management tools.

Dr. Patrick J. Rusz
Director of Wildlife Programs

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