Cheboygan, Mich. — Reports of coyote-wolf hybrids in Michigan have sparked debate online in recent months, and research by the University of Michigan and the DNR confirms their existence.
But DNR officials believe the animal’s mystique and unique characteristics are largely overblown, and said there’s no biological reason to manage the animals any differently than coyotes.
In February, debate raged on social media over a large coyote taken by Michigan hunter Dan Black that many believed to be a unique breed of coyote-wolf hybrid. DNR officials confirmed the animal was not a hybrid, Wild Michigan reported, but many were not convinced.
The interest in “coywolves” likely stems from shows like last year’s PBS special, “Meet the Coywolf,” which focused on “a remarkable new hybrid carnivore that is taking over territories once roamed by wolves and slipping unnoticed into our cities,” as described by the show.
Phil Myers, an evolutionary biologist with the University of Michigan, has studied what’s believed to be a pack of coywolves in the area around the university’s biological station near Cheboygan. In 2010, large tracks that appeared to be from wolves were found in the area, and DNR officials employed the help of a trapper with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services to catch, test, and collar one of the animals.
“All indications were they were wolves that immigrated down across the ice” from the Upper Peninsula, Myers said.
Eventually, a young pup was captured, and officials were convinced the animal was a wolf. They took numerous measurements and blood for DNA testing and sent it to researchers studying coyote-wolf hybrids in Ontario. A few months later, a trapper caught two more juvenile animals in the same vicinity that he also believed to be wolves.
DNA tests later showed the animals were mostly coyote, with a trace of wolf genetics. The larger two animals were fitted with radio collars, though one later was found discarded, according to Dean Beyer, DNR wildlife researcher in Marquette.
The juvenile animals were “as large as most adult coyotes” with some wolf-like features, like larger-than-normal paws.
According to “Coyotes in Wolves’ Clothing,” a research paper on the northern Michigan animals written by Beyer and others for The American Midland Naturalist, “The pups, two females and one male, were assumed to be wolves based on physical characteristics.
“Genetic profiles assigned all three pups as coyotes but revealed evidence of maternal introgression from a Great Lakes wolf in their pedigree. These findings suggest that Great Lakes wolves are capable of interbreeding with coyotes…”
Debate in the scientific community continues surrounding wolf genetics, and the extent of interbreeding between eastern and Great Lakes wolves, and coyotes, but the northern Michigan DNA tests did reveal some interesting evidence.
All three of the animals were determined to be siblings, with wolf DNA “mostly in the mitochondria DNA, which means it’s the result of a male coyote mating with a female wolf,” Myers said.
The tests also showed that the wolf genetics is “a small enough factor (in the DNA) that it probably goes back several generations,” he said.
In 2012, talk among locals of large coyotes in the area and the DNA test results prompted students in Myers’ U of M class at the Cheboygan station to find out more about the animals. By that time, only one of the collared hybrids remained.
“My class asked if they could do some radio-tracking at night. We radio-tracked the animal then (in 2012) and again last summer,” Myers said, adding that the DNR loaned students equipment and assisted by helping to locate them by air.
“What we found was these animals have a larger home range than a coyote but smaller than a wolf,” he said. “It also looks like they use swampland and dense forest more than coyotes usually do.
“We also discovered that there is at least a small pack of them. We don’t know how many … but farmers we talked to described groups of these things.”
DNR officials have no plans to conduct their own research into the Cheboygan County animals, and the typical 3-year battery life on the one collared canid is expected to expire soon, though Beyer said it could last up to 8 years.
Myers said his students likely will continue to research the hybrids during his next class in 2016, if the collar is still active.
In the meantime, Adam Bump, DNR furbearer specialist, said state officials won’t be managing the hybrids any differently than coyotes.
“There has been a lot of interest in that notion of coyote-wolf hybrids lately, and not just in Michigan,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as significant as people want to believe.”
Some have pointed out there is a lot of variance in size among coyotes, and other factors like the environment can affect their home range, Bump said.
The issue with coywolves is also confounded by folks who misidentify animals in the wild, he said.
“From a management perspective, coyotes will be managed like coyotes and wolves will be managed like wolves,” Bump said. “You apply the regulations based on what the animal appears to be, and if you’re not sure I would error on the side of caution and treat it like a wolf.
“In the Lower Peninsula, I think most of the cases of reports of large coyotes are from people who have difficulty judging the size of the animals,” he said.
Myers, however, points out that science still has a lot to learn about how genetic makeup affects the physical and behavioral characteristics of living things. In other words, it’s currently impossible to know how, exactly, the trace of wolf DNA is manifesting itself in Michigan’s hybrids.
“Exactly how that development takes place and the contributions to the process of how development works … is very tricky,” he said.