EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 17, 2013

Coyotes or coywolves: Debate grows over their true identity

By Bill Kirk
bkirk@eagletribune.com

---- — NORTH ANDOVER — On a Saturday morning earlier this month, Bill Deyermond of 466 Salem St. looked out his kitchen window and saw what looked like a wolf emerge from the conservation land behind his house.

Then he said to himself, “No, that must be a coyote.”

As he snapped pictures of it through an open window, the animal sauntered around to the side yard of his house, plopped down on the grass, and looked around intently.

“He sat in the yard, looking at me in the window, and turning his head to watch the traffic go by,” said Deyermond, 70.

It didn’t act strangely, so he is pretty sure it didn’t have rabies, but he wondered what it was. He emailed several images to a Barnstable-based coyote expert, Dr. Jonathan Way, who confirmed his first hunch.

“It was a very healthy looking and young (probably 10-11 month old pup) animal,” Way responded. “Yes, it is an eastern coyote or coywolf.”

He said genetic comparisons with wolves show that eastern coyotes have a significant amount of wolf DNA, which would make them a hybrid of both animals.

“Genetics and science has basically finally caught up with reality (that) these ‘coyotes’ have always been hybrids,” Way said in an email to The Eagle-Tribune. “They are indeed social, intelligent pack/family oriented animals which is similar to both wolves and western coyotes.”

But according to the Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, there is no such thing as a coywolf, or a coydog, for that matter.

“They are all eastern coyotes,” said Marion Larson, information and education chief for the division. “Coywolf is not the proper term. It is a coyote, no different than any of the other coyotes in Massachusetts.”

She was also emailed photos of the animal seen in North Andover, further confirming her suspicion that it was, indeed, a coyote, albeit one with “luxuriant coat,” typical of the winter fur on many animals this time of year in New England.

Many people are used to seeing coyotes with gray, scraggly hair. That may be what they look like in the summer, but in the winter, their coats take on a fuller look, making them resemble wolves, she said.

She admitted, however, there is a little wolf DNA in eastern coyotes.

“There’s a lot of back and forth about genetics,” she said, “but it’s more of an academic argument at this point.”

For the most part, red wolves were eradicated from New England by the mid-1800s. But, Larson said, a gray wolf was shot by a farmer in 2007 in Sherburne, where it had attacked some livestock. A federal offense to shoot wolves, a protected species, the farmer in this case was not charged because he was protecting his sheep, Larson said.

While in most cases it is illegal to shoot wolves, it is not against the law for licensed hunters to kill coyotes. Coyote season runs from October to March 8.

Larson said it is unclear where the gray wolf came from. They are known to live in parts of Canada, Minnesota and, of course, Yellowstone National Park, where they were reintroduced years ago by wildlife officials, over the objections of nearby ranchers.

“The closest wolf population is north of the Great Lakes,” she said.

It may have taken a path similar to one used by a mountain lion hit by a car in Connecticut two years ago. In that case, wildlife biologists were able to determine, based on scat and tufts of fur left behind by the animal, that it came from South Dakota, via Canada.

Way, the biologist from Barnstable, contends that the coyotes in our midst are, in fact, as much wolf as coyote. He said he is publishing a paper in the near future that will show definitively that the local coywolf is a hybrid of western coyotes and eastern wolves.

“The eastern wolf is a small, coyote-like wolf ... that settlers killed off in the 1700/1800s in New England,” he said. “So what I am saying is that there really aren’t any pure coyotes in New England. They are all hybrids.”

While the distinction may be of importance to biologists and other wildlife enthusiasts, from a practical standpoint it is still a wild animal that must be treated with respect, according to state and local authorities.

“We have coyotes in town and when people call we tell them, ‘Don’t leave your bird-feeders or garbage cans out,’” said Amy McCarthy, a community service officer with the North Andover Police Department. “And keep an eye on your domestic animals.”

She added, “Keep food sources to a minimum ... they’ll feed off of anything.” Bird-feeders become a source of food, she said, because small animals such as rabbits or squirrels that feed on the bird seed become a food source themselves for coyotes, laying in wait for an easy snack.

McCarthy said she hasn’t gotten any complaints recently about coyotes killing cats or small dogs, but she did get one phone call after one of Deyermond’s pictures was published in The Eagle-Tribune.

“People get nervous,” she said. “But we can’t do anything about them. We built up around their neighborhoods, and they have adjusted to having us around.”

Larson said there have been just five attacks by coyotes on humans since 1950, far less than the number of dog bites logged annually in towns like North Andover.

James McCarthy, a North Andover resident who recently started a local wildlife team to identify and certify wildlife habitat in town, said he hopes his organization can get the word out to people that coyotes are good neighbors as long as they are treated like wild animals.

“The only way to control the population of coyotes is to live with them,” he said in an email to The Eagle-Tribune. “There is literally no other way around it.” He decried hunting as a means of controlling them, saying that they will simply respond by having more pups.

Larson said that’s exactly what happens, adding that hunting is not used as a means of controlling populations of coyotes.

“We know there’s been more interest in hunting coyotes in the last few years,” she said. “And the season was extended. But hunting is not a tool for population management.”

For the most part, the animals are hunted for their pelts, although occasionally their bones and skulls are donated to schools for education purposes.

Dr. Way said he believes hunting of coyotes, or coywolves as he calls them, should end altogether and that the animals should be treated like a protected species, similar to wolf populations.

He said in a letter to the New York Times, in response to an editorial about killing wolves in Montana, that “state management plans in all Northeastern states essentially allow an unlimited slaughter of eastern coyotes for all or at least half of the year.”

He denounced the practice, saying “coywolves are important to the ecology of the area ... coywolves (and wolves) are social, sentient, and intelligent animals that should be treated like a valuable member of the natural community ... and the current management of coywolves (eastern coyotes) here in the Northeast just about guarantees that non-hybridized wolves making it here from southern Canada will be killed.”