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.

Categories: Rob Drieslein

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