Is a Wolf a Wolf? Is a Coyote a Coyote?
A new, irritating wrinkle has emerged in the gray wolf delisting saga. I hope readers reviewed Tim Spielman's wolf delisting story on the front of the Sept. 2 edition of Outdoor News. A taxonomic debate has emerged over whether the so-called eastern wolf has interbred with gray wolves, especially in Wisconsin and Michigan. A status review of the eastern wolf, currently under way, could result in protection for it in the Midwest. And that, folks, could present yet another leverage point for those who oppose wolf delisting in the region.
Frankly, I'm skeptical there is any such animal as the "eastern wolf." In my non-scientific opinion, North America had one species of wolf when Europeans arrived. There were several subspecies, particularly in more southerly climes, but across the northern tier of the continent, a gray wolf was a gray wolf in Minnesota or New York or Alaska.
A few years back, we received a reader shot from a Pennsylvania subscriber showing him with a nice buck and two "coyotes" shot from his stand. These canines were huge, and I forwarded the images to wolf biologists and photographers around the country asking for their opinion. The general consensus was that I was seeing "eastern coyotes" a slightly larger animal than the coyotes we have here. Settlers 200 years ago completely wiped wolves off the landscape in the eastern United States. Coyotes, too. But as the savvy coyote worked its way back into eastern North America the past 40 years, it interbred with a few wolves in eastern Canada, and a new über coyote has filled – albeit very loosely – a niche in the rapidly aging forests of Pennsylvania and the northeast.
You can find geneticists who'll debate these matters all day, but my conclusion is that we have varying degrees of wolf-coyote hybridization across the eastern U.S. In simple terms, as you go farther east and south, you'll find more coyote genetics in these wild canines. Farther north and west into the Upper Midwest and Canada, you'll find little coyote DNA in wolves.
This eastern wolf story has generated (in Spielman's story) some baffled, even angry comments from people I consider moderate voices on the wolf issue. We printed a commentary from George Meyer, the former head of the Wisconsin DNR, on the matter back in our July 15 edition entitled, "A wolf is a wolf is a wolf." He called these "eastern wolf" shenanigans a "bait and switch" in Midwest delisting.
If wolf lovers want to restore populations of gray or "eastern" wolves in the eastern United States, then be honest and debate that idea. But it should have no impact on delisting of the animal – whatever its genetic background – we call the gray wolf in the Upper Midwest. One might argue that if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't do its due diligence on eastern wolves, then lawsuits from wolf promoters would further stall the delisting process. My retort? They'd sue anyway.
The comment period runs through Sept. 26.