Eastern coyotes and the red wolf. Guest opinion

Suburban Howls will be published by Dog Ear Publications (Indiana, IL). It should be out around Christmas-time. In it, I detail the possible evolution of coyotes. Note that Gerry Parker in Eastern Coyotes: The Story of Its Success does a great job detailing the evolution of the eastern coyote.

I also have an article coming out in the fall issue of the peer-reviewed journal Northeastern Naturalist.

Basically, the theory is that by the turn of this century there weren’t many wolves left (as everybody knows by now), but there were some. At the same time it is well known that coyotes were moving east from the Great Lakes States. As they reached northern New England and southern Canada they likely met lone wolves. Up until recently we thought they were gray wolves, Canis lupus lycaon. However, recent genetic data indicates that most wolves sampled in that area (including Algonquin Park in Ontario) are actually very similar to red wolves. The thought might now be that there used to have red wolves (or eastern wolves as proposed to be named) all along eastern North America from Florida through New England to SE Canada. It is believed that is what the western coyote mated with.

Then, by natural range expansion, the hybrid started breeding true (ie, back with other hybrids or even western coyotes or red wolves) as they colonized New Hampshire (1940s) and southern New England (Massachusetts late 1950s). Qualitatively it is obvious to me that they are hybrids – just looking at their size, appearance, and characteristics.

We are now just looking at the eastern coyote side of things genetically, .i.e., I am collaborating with Brad White and his team to examine the genetic profile of the eastern coyotes, much like has already been done for wolves in SE Canada. Because there is scant funding for eastern coyote research, there has been a lag to truly understanding the genetic makeup of these cool animals.

The paper that I have coming out in Northeastern Naturalist does definitively show that eastern coyotes are heavier than all other types of coyotes (specifically the coyotes from New England).

Tests are underway to determine what are the wolves that have occasionally been recolonizing the east. Note: there is also supposedly a population of gray, not red, wolves not far from Maine. While some still think that the wolf in SE Canada is a gray wolf, Canis lupus lycaon, it is well known that these wolves are smaller than grays from other areas, except maybe the Mexican wolf. However, one of the biggest problems for the red wolf reintroduction project in North Carolina has been hybridization with coyotes. This is no doubt what happened in northern New England many years ago. As you know, hybridization with western coyotes and the bigger gray wolves does not seem to occur.

At any rate, it is bewildering that the northern New England states allow unlimited killing of such closely related species. People out of New England might think that we are very “liberal” – but on the ground in New England, with policies like that for coyotes, that isn’t really the case. Hopefully those states will get sued for not protecting the wolves.







  1. Rick Hammel Avatar
    Rick Hammel

    A well written enlightening article.

  2. Mike Post Avatar
    Mike Post

    Disturbing. The combination of the wolf’s athletic prowess coupled with the coyote’s much more common tendency to frequent urban areas and habituate to humans as food source (with subsequent attacks) could spell real trouble for both species.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Maybe, but this is by now a long established and huge population of coyote/red wolf hybrids. Therefore, the effects have already been felt for some time, and the rate of attacks on humans known.

    What are they? I got email a couple years back that said one boy had been killed.

    I’ll be interested to read “Suburban Howl’s” and order “Eastern Coyotes: The Story of Its Success.”

  4. John Glowa Avatar
    John Glowa

    I’d like to get in touch with Dr. Way and find out what is being done to try to identify the origins of the wolves that have been killed in the northeast. this is something that very much needs to be done. I’d also be very interested to see the result of his work with “coyotes”. Dr. Roland Kays of the New York State Museum is working to collect one hundred “coyote” samples for another study. FYI-Maine’s 1996 wolf-like canid was recently retested and was determined to be a gray wolf/coyote hybrid. I have to wonder if the gray wolf and coyote reference standards didn’t also include some canis lycaon genetic material.

  5. Alan Gregory Avatar
    Alan Gregory

    Ralph, Mollie Matteson writes about this in today’s Rutland (VT) Herald.
    The link is http://www.rutlandherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061011/NEWS/610110317/1039/OPINION03

  6. Jon Way Avatar
    Jon Way

    The combination of wolf and coyote does not seem to make them danger. My book Suburban Howls (coming out around New Years) is all about eastern coyote in urban areas. Although regularly sighted in backyards in eastern Mass. (and elsewhere) they rarely pose a threat to people and avoid any type of confrontation except chasing dogs away from their pups (western coyotes chase grizzly bears and wolves from their pups). There have been 3-4 eastern coyote bites in Mass. in the past 50 years – none fatal, and 2-3 of the coyotes had rabies.
    Far more coyotes bite people in California per year and the only documented fatality of a coyote on a human came in 1981 on a 3-year old.
    To John Glowa, I have no official contacts with feds or state of Vermont so I won’t be doing any tests on the wolf-like canid in Vermont. Although hopefully folks up there will. My work is currently down on Cape Cod, Mass. and we are testing eastern coyote samples from that area.
    I thought that Mollie Matteson’s article about Vermont’s lack of coyote killing was good as a cue/hint to the state to protect wolves. However, I do have a fundamental problem with the killing in the first place. In other words, I will say flat out: wolves or not in the NE, it is pretty pathetic that the minority that hunt (even in rural Maine only about 10% of the pop. hunts) are given the opportunity to shoot eastern coyotes year-round. All the data indicates that they are territorial and limit their numbers in a local area, so year-round killing of coyotes (in any state where it is allowed) should not be acceptable in any circumstance except maybe livestock kills on private land….

  7. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    So it isn’t the size of the coyote that matters in terms of human attacks, it seems.

    I know there were several wintertime coyote attacks in Yellowstone Park a decade or more ago. One was on a cross-country skier and the other a Park ranger.

  8. Joe Chen Avatar
    Joe Chen

    We human have been killing the wild canines and chase them out of their natural habitat. But ” Nature will find its ways.”. l predict in 50 years or sooner, we will have well established population of hybrid sub-species like Grey Coyowolf, Red Coyowolf or common Coyodogs. This is just their natural instinct to survive and to adopt the human pressure. It is a gift from Mother Nature to let them co-exist with us. The Allegator River Redwolf Project has tried in vain to stamp out the Red Coyowolf, and they know these hybrids are here to stay.
    Any animal, includes your Poodle, will bite people if they are threatened. Just leave the wild animal alone.

  9. Chris Avatar

    The posting asserting that the Red Wolf Project “has tried in vain” to eliminate hybrids and concedes hybrids are “here to stay” is a mischaracterization at best. The U.S.F.W.S.’s Red Wolf Recovery Project in northeastern North Carolina has eliminated coyotes and hybrids from 2/3 of the wolf’s one million acre recovery area. The results of intensive radio-tracking, research, scouting, and trapping efforts leads to the sterilizing or lethal control of coyotes and hybrids, as well as augmenting the wolf population. Sterilized coyotes or hybrids can defend a territory from breeding coyotes or hybrids but be removed if wolves arrive or can be moved to that territory. If red wolves can find another available red wolf they will mate and exclude coyotes from their territory. Hybridization with coyotes is still the biggest threat to the population, as it is anytime you have an isolated and small population of a species in the same area as a similar species.

  10. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Chris, I think you are absolute correct. Every year the Red Wolf Project folks come to our North American wolf conference, usually held at Chico, Montana.

    For a number of years I have watched them present their data showing how they have successfully replaced coyote/wolf hybrids with red wolves with the method you describe above. Each year gets better, and the big threat now is some military base they want to build in the middle of the area.

  11. Howard Goldstein Avatar
    Howard Goldstein

    I’m gald to see this post…I have been fascinated by red wolves, eastern coyotes, and ‘eastern timber wolves’ for years. The red wolf almost certainly ranged further north than originally thought (I believe the last wolf killed in New York state, in the Adirondacks, was determined to be a red, not gray, wolf.). As per my understanding, the red wolf’s range paralled that of the white-tailed deer, it’s principle prey. Before European settlement, upper Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine—and southern Ontario around present day Algonquin Provincial Park—were old growth boreal forest, and white tailed deer were rare or absent. Moose and woodland caribou were the dominant ungulates. I suspect (and please someone correct me if there is evidence to the contrary… I do not claim to be an expert) gray wolves did at one time inhabit the northern portions of Eastern North America where caribou and moose—and in the midwest elk and bison— were plentiful. Red wolves were probably absent here, beyond the historic northern limit of white tails. Gray wolf range probably overlapped with red wolves south of Upper New England where mixed or deciduous forests were present; much like grizzlies and black bears today, the red wolves undoubtably avoided their larger cousins. Today, eastern wolves (lycaon) prey mainly on deer and beaver; red wolves in North Carolina prey mainly on deer, followed by raccoons. As predators of a (relatively) small ungulate and large-medium sized animals, red wolves were the only wolf in the southeast, and probably in some coastal and swampy habitats along the eastern seaboard. Red wolves/eastern timber wolves are probably recent inhabitants of Canada, following another recent invader, the white-tailed deer. Logging and farming in Canada created habitats favored by deer that had previously been caribou-moose country. It’s hard to say for sure now, since we’ve long since cut down the old growth forests, eliminated the caribou, and slaughtered wolves without even bothering to learn what exactly they were. This also lead to the circumstances by which gray wolves, red wolves, and coyotes would hybridize, and further tangles the geneology of the eastern Canis species. I look forward to learning more about the origins and status of the eastern timber wolf, eastern coyote, and red wolf.
    Question: If red wolves and eastern lycaon wolves turned out to be the same species, would Canis lycaon become the northern subspecies Canis rufus lycaon? I’m assuming “rufus” has precedence over “lycaon” because it’s older…is that true?

  12. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    You raise very good questions and possible answers. I have thought along the same line.

    I do know that more and more wildlife biologists are being trained in the latest methods of genetic analysis, and questions like these will probably be answered not just for wolves, but many species.

    I was fortunate to sit on two graduate committees (as the outside the department representative) where this kind of research was undertaken. One studied the relatedness of wolverines around the world. The other studied the dispersal of deer mice in the islands off the coast of British Columbia.

  13. Mark Avatar

    Great article, I’m glad to see some folks are paying attention. I have seen many of these animals close up in the wild. This is a subspecies of wolf for that you can be sure. I feel the local fish and wildlife state run groups do not want to change the name from Coyote as that would mean they were protected. The laws are unfortunetly in the favor of fur bearer interests. I think in this case the science and the public needs to lead this effort so that we can better manage and understand our local wolf hybrids (brushwolf).

  14. Howard Avatar

    In regards to state/local wildlife agencies not wanting to acknowledge that some of these “coyotes” may not be coyotes, I do think it’s interesting how the ESA often fails large carnivores when they actually start showing signs of natural recolonization…especially if it’s not expected. Under the ESA, a wolf that makes it into New England should be protected in the hopes of natural recolonization. And on paper, they are protected. In the real world, however, these animals usually end up dead (claiming that you thought it was a coyote clears you from all legal accountability… while I’m not in favor of nailing someone to the wall for a honest-to-God mistake, it makes it easy for more malicious folks to kill wolves and plead ignorance); moreover, the presence of a wolf is generally treated as an aberration rather than a serious possibility of wolves returning. The default answer by local wildlife agencies is often “hybrid” or “released captive”. State/local agencies are quite correct in trying to ascertain an animal’s origin before proclaiming it a wild wolf, but the trend seems to be to publically announce that it probably isn’t a wild wolf before they really know anything. In fact, an animal shot in New York statein 2001 that was publically declared, at different times, to be a hybrid or a coyote, has now been confirmed to be a definite wolf!

    A similar thing I found intriguing concerns cougars. Cougars are dispersing from the West and turning up in increasing numbers in border (with the Mississippi River) states, although authenticated sightings in these states are still sporadic and there is no evidence yet of breeding cougar populations east of the Black Hills. One state that has had a few wild cougars definitively confirmed is Missouri. The state has declared it has no intent of “encouraging” cougars to return (and has had to fight back accusations by the usual crew that the cougars were clandestinely planted in the Show Me State by nefarious fish and wildlife agents). There is no indication (yet) of any cougars breeding in Missouri, and as of now, the confirmed wild cats have been few and scattered (both chronologically and spatially) and mostly dispersing males. Yet, to allay fears about the possibility of cougars reestablishing themselves, the Missouri Department of Conservation has changed the state status of the cougar from “Endangered” to “Extirpated”. Now, I’m really not sure what the legal ramifications of this are (if any), nor do I want to single out Missouri, since it’s Department of Conservation is arguably the most progressive and least beholden to commercial interests of any state wildlife agency, but the excercise seems a bizarre one. When cougars were believed completely eradicated from the state, they were listed as Endagered; after proof of wild cougars was found, the species became Extirpated! The message is loud and clear; cougars do not “belong” in Missouri, even though they are native and even if they recolonized areas that can still support them. This idea that large carnivores are by definition “accidental” when they actually do return to places that they were extirpated is a major reason why natural recolonization by predators often doesn’t work.

    Sorry about the length of all this…I did have a question too, if anyone knwos…

    Does anyone have any info about current red wolf conservation? Is there any effort being made for further red wolf reintroductions? In North Carolina, there’s somewhere between 80 and 100 wild red wolves, and I have heard that they are expanding their range (within the general reintroduction area). As posted above, it appears coyote control has been improved, with very few red wolf-coyote hybrids in recent years. However, unless I’m mistaken, that ’80-100′ wild red wolves figure hasn’t moved in many years.
    As per my understanding, the red wolf recovery plan calls for at least three mainland populations. Great Smokies National Park was attempted, but unfortunately failed. Is there any interest/progress in establishing red wolves again at other sites?
    Personally, I think Florida is a good bet (as always, I welcome any facts to the contrary, as I am certainly no expert). I think Florida may be a good place to reintroduce red wolves because there are already several high profile endangered species (manatee, American crocodile, Florida panther) in that state. Unfortunately, politics is as important as science in reestablishing wildlife, and I suspect there may be more tolerance for red wolves in Florida (there would be opposition too, of course) as well as being an area already in the public eye. Second, I suspect that eastern coyotes may be smaller in Florida than elsewhere (in keeping with general trend of smaller body size in animals at the southern parts of their range), making them less desirable as mates for red wolves and easier to dominate/kill/exclude from territory.
    The drawbacks to Florida is that state’s huge population growth and subsequent environmental problems (although this problem does not uniquely affect red wolves and there is still areas that could support wolves), and, precisely BECAUSE Florida already has several high profile species, conservationists do not want energy/funds diverted from existing programs (very sad that Florida wildlife specialists may not be able to secure adequate funding for both panthers and red wolves…).
    Incidentally, if red wolves were reintroduced to Florida, I DO NOT think it should be in the Everglades. I think this is extremely fringe habitat for red wolves and that the project would fail.
    Again…does anyone know if there is any movement afoot on other reintroduction sites? The past six years have, of course, been entirely defensive battle on conservation issues, but hopefully things will become proactive again soon.

  15. v-man Avatar

    I find it interesting that there is such disdain expressed at the killing of coyotes/coywolves in New England, yet it is advocated in the Alligator River red wolf reintroduction site. Am I the only one who sees the irony in that?

    As a Vermont outdoorsman, I have seen first hand the results of a burgeoning coyote population on the game animals here. I have also watched with incredulity as some transplanted city people attempt to put a stop to the hunting of coyotes in this state.

    The eastern coyote is nothing if not prolific. Since there are no natural controls on their population, hunting is the best management tool available and should not be hindered in any way. To attempt to stop the hunting of the eastern coyote is not a scientific action, it is an emotional one. Let’s lead with our heads and not our hearts here, folks.

  16. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Well someone else might want to comment as well as me, but yes the coyotes are very prolific. In terms of the coyote population, killing them will make little or no difference whatsoever unless about 40% of them are killed a year, every year

    Of course, this percentage may vary from place to place.

    That doesn’t mean the coyote population will grow 40% if you don’t kill them. The population may remain the same, grow a little bit, or even decline if it is untouched.

    Assuming there is an adequate prey base for coyotes, (and coyotes eat many more kinds of things than wolves do), killing a coyote simply makes room for more.

    I believe the objection was that someone didn’t like the killing because it is pointless except for pleasure. That gets into whether killing animals for the pleasure of it is OK.

    Not a debate I want to go to.

  17. Alan Gregory Avatar

    There’s a (slight) comparison in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s trapping of Brown-headed Cowbirds in Kirtland’s Warbler habitat in Michigan. I know of only one other place this is done to limit cowbirds’ takeover of songbird nests, and that’s in the Texas Hill Country.
    But nowhere else are cowbirds trapped to such levels.

  18. John Glowa Avatar
    John Glowa

    Regarding the wolf/coyote hybrid issue, here in the northeast, these animals are referred to as “coyotes” and are given no federal or state protection. For example, in 1996 an 80+ lb. wolf/coyote hybrid was killed by a Maine trapper and there was no enforcement action. Conversely, in the Great Lakes states where wolf/coyote hybrids also exist, apparently these hybrids are considered wolves for purposes of meeting the delisting requirements in the eastern timber wolf recovery plan. DNA analyses are done in the northeast to identify wolves for purposes of possible prosecution, yet apparently no such legal standard is in place to assess whether or not the so-called eastern timber wolves being targeted for de-listing, are in fact, wolves. In my opinion, there is clearly a legal double standard that needs to be challenged. By the way, the 90+ lb. canid killed in northern Vermont on October 1, has been confiscated by USFWS special agents and is being examined to determine if it was a wolf and where it might have come from. For several years, there have been reports of wolves in southern Quebec within twenty miles of where this animal was killed, yet apparently nothing was done on this side of the border to protect any that might come into the U.S.

  19. Chris Avatar

    The wild red wolf population is not dramatically increasing because of illegal killings, vehicle collisions, and the need for the recovery area to be expanded. Future release sites further south are also limited by the Florida panther’s future. Any current or proposed future panther sites are off limits to the wolves because they’d be competing over the same prey base. For more info on red wolf recovery try:

    Alligator River N.W.R.: http://alligatorriver.fws.gov
    The Red Wolf Coaliton: http://www.redwolves.com
    The North Carolina Zoo: www/nczoo.org (under conservation and research).

  20. Mike Avatar

    I wish we would just allow nature to take its course. Animal populations rise and fall for various reasons. In this case, I agree that the senseless killing of coyotes year round is unwarranted. As the prey populations rise and fall, so shall the coyotes.

  21. Chris Avatar

    I think having the oppurtunity to hunt coyotes in Vermont is a very good thing. Coyotes where I am from are vary wary of humans and I see very few even while hunting. And the tracks show that they are actually quite prevalent. Some might argue that they are dog tracks, but most dogs aren’t going to be running around up on mountains at 2 to 3 thousand feet and two miles from the nearest house. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to see coyote sign. Sometimes, though, I see more coyote tracks than deer, which is quite disconcerting. My family is full of avid hunters, and we rarely take a coyote. Even if you see one, they are often running so quick and are out of sight before you can get a good shot off, especially if you are in the woods. My father has been hunting in Vermont for over 40 years, and has only taken two coyotes, and I believe only seen 3 or so while hunting. I would not be too afraid of the population greatly declining due to year round “oppurtunity” to hunt coyotes. It helps keep the population in check, preventing it from growing to high and eating too many deer, varmints, and other animal, which are an important part of Vermont’s hunting economy. You may differ with this view, which is okay. I just thought that I would throw it out there. Merry Christmas all.

  22. Steve Parker Avatar
    Steve Parker

    Interesting stuff going on up there. My main focus is on the remnant animals in the last known range of the red wolf…SE TX and SW LA.

    While in the past 20 years the occurences of “wolves” in Texas has lessened and the population seems to have taken on the overall apprearance of “big red coyotes”, there are still occurences of animals that look like the old red wolf and meet many if not all of the USFWS min. size criteria of red wolves. Whether this is a function of hybridization or remaining isolated pockets of wolves is unknown, but if I had to bet I’d say hybridization.

    Irrespective of the cause, the effect is the same… repeated sightings of large animals that look and act like red wolves.And there skulls look like the old red wolf, too. Ron Nowak has urged the Feds to come back to Texas to see what’s left 25 years after the recovery ended(and several of the Feds I spoke to agree)but politically it is looked down upon in the agency.

    What a shame. Potentially having remnants of one of the world’s most endangered canids living within spitting distance from 10 million people and nobody even cares enough to go take a look.

    For the record, the Feds in the know are at least honest …they call them “non-coyote canids”, but down here in Texas it’s just easier to call them “coyotes” and laugh at anybody who tries to report them as something “special”.

    By the way…most of the Fed/ State folks responsible for these things on a local level wouldn’t know a red wolf if it bit them on the ass!

    Steve Parker

    Love to see some pictures of larger animls if y’all have any.

  23. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I think it’s clearly established by genetic analysis that most New England coyotes are part Eastern Canadian wolf — part canis lupis lycaon. See Genetic Status And Morphological Characteristics Of Maine Coyotes As Related To Neighboring Coyote And Wolf Populations (Wilson, P. J., W. J. Jakubas, and S. Mullen. 2004). It seems likely to me that many southeastern coyotes are part canis rufus.

    Being larger than the original western coyote, these various wolf/coyote hybrids take a lot of deer where deer are present.

    If there had been a debate about introducing these animals, there would have been political chaos. When they did it themselves, and on a massive scale there was just talk about a problem (or an opportunity).

    Contrast that with Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, and New Mexico where there is near hysteria (albeit deliberately spread) about the restored canis lupus population (and Canis lupis baileyi ) in the SW.

    I don’t have any photos of these “coyotes.”

  24. Steve Parker Avatar
    Steve Parker

    I think your right on the CRR influence in the SE. The question becomes how big is “part” . Most of the animals are bigger than normal coyotes, long legged with wolf coloration. But some are much bigger and they seem to exist in pockets, especially directly adjacent to the Coast and most especially in Orange and Jefferson Counties were the last “pure” wolves were taken. I’d like to compare the genetics of these animals with those NE coyotes and CLL.

    Dave Mech did a study on some animals North of Dallas last year. I hope to have the genetic results soon, but Nowak looked at the skulls and said they lokk like what they found in the 60’s… a highly variable population ranging from near coyote to the lower range of historic CRR. So some of these are technically red wolves .. at least if you believe the guy who defined the species for the Feds.

    My biggest problem with the whole issue is that the responsible agencies are so dismissive of people’s reports when some of the reports may be accurate. Everybody just recites the standard line… which is probably wrong. The first thing Glynn Riley (the trapper who caught most the captive stock) laughingly told me when I told him that I thought I found a wolf was “Steve, I didn’t catch them all” Thank God for honesty.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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