The stories are out there, a growing volume of them. They are anecdotal, to be sure, but they are alarming and growing in number: Hunters, trappers, DNR agents, government trappers, wildlife biologists and others in the field are reporting a new and different looking animal in the woods - an animal that looks like a wolf-coyote mix.
It's called a coywolf, and in today's Lakeland Times investigative reporter Richard Moore explores its possible existence in Wisconsin. If indeed the coywolf has made its way here, it is no laughing matter. The public needs to take the threat seriously, and so do state officials, starting with the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, Cathy Stepp.
In his story, Moore explains exactly why a wolf-coyote hybrid is so dangerous. As he writes, the animal, much larger than a typical coyote, poses an increased threat to livestock, domestic animals and humans because it retains the coyotes' tolerance of people and urban areas, making encroachment on human environments more likely. The coywolves are also more aggressive than regular coyotes, and seem to be more intelligent.
Of course, in officialdom all we hear are denials. There is no new wolf in Wisconsin, DNR wolf biologist Adrian Wydeven says, and any coyote-wolf genetic mix - which he concedes abounds - likely occurred a long time ago. Wolf biologist L. David Mech of the U.S. Geological Survey agrees, and has publicly questioned the existence of a gray wolf-coyote hybrid.
Gray wolves like to kill coyotes, not mate with them, he told the Associated Press.
And yet the reports from the field continue. Wydeven acknowledged that biologists thought a dead wolf found recently in Bayfield looked like a wolf-coyote mix. The DNA testing on the animal is not complete.
More than that, Mech's own 1991 study established a gray wolf-coyote coywolf in Minnesota - 20 years ago. In today's article, Mech tries to walk back that study without discrediting it, saying genetic study was in its infancy then.
In other words, he says, they didn't know what they were looking at.
The problem is, people in the field do know what they are looking at, and it is a different kind of animal, and recent studies - particularly the Kays' study cited in Moore's article - used advanced genetic techniques to confirm hybridization.
Far from discrediting the 1991 research, then, the latest studies and the latest genetic science seem to confirm the older study rather than contradict it. The science points to hybridization, and government officials are using only broad generic cliches - such as gray wolves like to kill coyotes - to try and swat it down.
Such an assertion may be generally true but, as even the 1991 study observed, there are times when mating would logically take place, especially when a large and growing coyote population comes into contact with a smaller wolf population.
In the Northeast, coyotes probably mated with native eastern wolves as those wolves were hunted into extinction; the remaining wolves took what partners they could get.
But back in the Midwest, the 1991 study posited the possibility that dispersing wolves could and were mating with a much larger coyote population. A wolfpack might kill coyotes, but a lone dispersing wolf seeking to start a new pack just might mate.
It not only seems logical but likely, and it's also likely that over the past 20 years migration from Minnesota into Wisconsin has brought the species here. If coywolves were indeed in Minnesota in 1991, they are in Wisconsin today.
What's more, given the fast-growing coyote population - there are more coyotes than we have ever had - and a mismanaged wolf population - there are more wolves than we ever thought we would have - the conditions for hybridization cited in the 1991 study are ripe right now in Wisconsin.
Indeed, according to Wydeven, there are between 40,000 and 50,000 coyotes in the state, compared to 1,000 wolves. That's a ratio of 40 to 50 coyotes for every wolf, often occupying the same core areas, and that makes mating with a lone dispersing wolf not only possible but probable.
Moreover, there's a blatant contradiction between what Wydeven and Mech are saying. Mech says there's probably no hybridization going on because gray wolves like to kill coyotes, not mate with them, while Wydeven says the coyotes and wolves are co-existing because the coyotes know where they can "hang out" in wolf areas.
Thus, the wolves aren't killing the coyotes. Again, any type of such co-existence in wolf areas means probable contact and likely cross-breeding over time.
So why the blanket denials rather than serious study? Why the wholesale abandonment of science?
It's all wrapped in politics, of course. The emergence of a new species or subspecies could have a major influence on wolf management and delisting decisions. And wolf biologists surely don't want to acknowledge the emergence of a hybrid species that poses a significantly greater threat to human communities and domestic animals.
But that's exactly what they need to do if that's the case. So rather than empty assertions, it's time for serious study. Ms. Stepp would do well to commission an independent study of potential wolf-coyote hybridization using outside experts rather than wolf biologists with a stake in the outcome.
And she should do so sooner rather than later, before the hybrid population is out of hand and before a tragedy occurs. If seeing is believing, Ms. Stepp should start believing what people in the field are seeing, rather than listening to stereotypical bromides from bureaucratic biologists.
To be sure, a lot of questions remain. Is the modern eastern wolf merely a coyote-gray wolf mix, as some assert? Did hybridization occur as western coyotes migrated eastward and came into contact with smaller destabilized wolf populations? Has the rapid growth of the coyote population, along with federal protection of Great Lakes wolf populations, sparked a new round of cross-mating in the Midwest?
That latter scenario is as feasible as it is terrifying. When it comes to wildlife and the environment, purely political decision-making shorn of scientific underpinnings is well-known for the unintended consequences it breeds, and in this case it could be literally breeding the mother of unintended consequences.
It's not even good news for the wolves. Indeed, the 1991 study cited in our article was written from a pro-wolf perspective. Scientists then wrote of the coywolf not in terms of the threat posed to human communities but to the integrity of the wolf species itself.
The truth is, the coywolf is a threat to wolves and to other animals. It pressures the deer population even more, for while wolves feed heartily on deer, coyotes generally do not. But coywolves do, and that adds a new predator to the list for deer.
And, again, the threat to humans and domestic animals is unprecedented because of the coywolves' tendency to live and move about easily in more populated and urban areas. This simply is not a species you want to have around, and, if it is, as it appears to be, the state needs to be moving rapidly to deal with it.
Instead, the DNR toddles out its mouthpieces in a mantra of See No Coywolf, Hear No Coywolf, Speak No Coywolf.
But those who study the science and walk the fields are seeing and hearing them, and it's time for the DNR to speak up about it.
Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Article comment by:
No less an authority than Scott Craven, Chair of the UW-Department of Ecology expert recently commented that where wolves appear coyotes disappear. Wolves routinely kill coyotes and cross-breading is almost nonexistent. It's why you don't see packs of wolves and coyotes inhabit the same territory. But leave it to the minds of the Lakeland Times to create a furor where none biologically exists. I'll take a UW-Chairs opinion - you can keep your own.
Posted: Thursday, November 10, 2011
Article comment by:
A few years ago in Sawyer County just north of Moose Lake I was lying behind a small ridge next to a deer trail waiting for a big buck, when a fast small animal ran up in crunchy ice crusted snow and stopped. Bigger than a coyote, smaller than a wolf, with beautiful thick fur and a wide white shield on his/her chest, which wrapped into a white ring around the neck. I did not have a camera. We looked at each other for 5 minutes, then I waved my 22 mag. pistol and it ran off. To this day I cannot classify it in my mind. I have seen wolves, coyotes and their tracks, this animal was neither. Thanks for this report, now I think I know what I observed. S.E. Johnson, M.D. (Marshfield)