Wolves or coyotes? Reader-submitted trail camera image generates massive online debate

Jerry Schneider sent Outdoor News a photo late last week from a trail camera on his 240-acre hunting property west of Finlayson showing eight wild canines entering a field on a steamy summer morning. (Images courtesy of Jerry Schneider)

They’re wolves.

Now, the story behind the viral photo.

Jerry Schneider sent Outdoor News a photo late last week from a trail camera on his 240-acre hunting property west of Finlayson. The date stamp shows the camera snapped the image in early August, and the photo clearly shows eight wild canines entering a field on a steamy summer morning.

Outdoor News social media guru Jason Revermann posted the image on our Facebook page at noon on Friday, and since then it’s been shared more than 2,400 times, received more than 400 comments (and counting), and nearly 365,000 Facebook users have seen it. That likely makes it the most viewed Outdoor News Facebook post ever.

Its viral nature likely has something to do with a question many social media users asked themselves: coyotes or wolves? Between the many responses suggesting there are too many of both species eating white-tailed deer in northeastern Minnesota, there were plenty of comments (usually adamant ones) declaring the animals “Wolves!” or “Coyotes!”

Schneider, the Cloquet-area resident who filed the images, said he hears coyotes calling almost nightly on his hunting property (though he’d seen wolves in the past) so he defaulted coyote. He sent me some other images from the same trail cam sequence, which we’ve included in this blog.

My initial take? Canis lupus – the eastern gray wolf. Two of the animals (adults) are larger than the others, which clearly are this year’s pups. In the heat of August, wolves are in their summer coats when they appear smaller and folks are probably most likely to confuse them with coyotes, but the ears and body language of these guys screamed wolves to me.

But I’m no wild canine expert, so I made a few calls this morning to some solid sources. To a person, they agreed, especially after seeing Schneider’s additional photos, that the images contain a big healthy pack of wolves.

I first spoke with Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the Minnesota DNR, who said the bigger, blockier features of the animals suggest wolf. Females typically whelp in mid-April so the pups appeared the appropriate size, he said.

“The second one from the left looks like an adult,” Stark said. “And they look pretty typical of the size I would expect that time of year.”

Tony Peterson, Outdoor News columnist and a national outdoors writer who spends many hours in north country treestands, agreed.

“Looking at the biggest one in the group makes me think that there is no way they are coyotes. I’m 99-percent sure it’s two adults with a load of pups,” he told me via email. “I think it would be pretty hard to argue that the biggest dog in that pic is a coyote. A coyote could walk right underneath it. Those are wolves.”

John Erb, the DNR’s furbearer specialist in Grand Rapids,  figured wolves but hedged a little via email citing the lack of any other critters to help with scale. When I sent him the other images, he offered this response:

“Still think wolves. Long-legged, appear to be more massive body/bone structure, albeit still skinny as is typically the case for summer wolves,” he wrote.

Nature writer and photography Stan Tekiela, who recently returned from capturing images of wildlife in Alaska, thought it odd that a pack of wolves would have so little color variation but felt strongly the images contained the largest of Minnesota wild canines.

“There’s very little space between their ears, plus big heavier heads, and not much space between their legs,” he said by phone. “Pretty hands down. Just says wolf to me.”

Tekiela thought the adult wolf second from left might be the female, and he liked the large specimen in the background standing at attention, likely an adult wolf looking out for danger ahead.

“He’s standing there watching. He’s in charge,” Tekiela said.

Finally, there was no room for debate from Peggy Callahan, executive director of the Wildlife Science Center, a Stacy-based non-profit wildlife education and research center that has housed wolves for decades.

Asked how she felt so confident, Callahan chuckled and said, “It’s a million things, like how do you recognize your dog?”

For starters, it’s unusual to see a group of coyotes that big, she said. But she mostly cited the physical traits – tail position and tail length, head and body shape, and the body language and posture obvious to someone who’s been around both species for years.

“We’ve had wolves in that area since the 1990s, so they’re well established up there,” she said. “At least six pups, and they look good and healthy. No mange. That’s some darn good survivorship.”

For me personally, image No. 4-5 (top) seals the deal. Look at the broadside pup front and center in that image – big blocky muzzle, huge paw and muscular leg. That’s a future alpha wolf if I ever saw one.

Thank you, Jerry Schneider, for submitting the images! He said the area has lots of deer, so go figure the wolves look healthy.

Follow Rob Drieslein via Twitter @ODN_Editor. For additional blogs from Drieslein, click here.

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