A tale of two species: Wolves, coyotes killed as lookalikes
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1994:
ADIRONDACK FOREST PRESERVE, N.Y.– –
Long hated and persecuted for resembling wolves, coyotes
again figure to pay the price for their bigger cousins as
wolves, their own image rehabilitated, are reintroduced to
fragments of their former habitat. The strongest argument
wolf defenders have for reintroduction, they’ve found, is not
that North American wolves have never verifiably attacked a
human being, nor that they’re the lovable creatures whose
family life Farley Mowat recorded in Never Cry Wolf!
Rather, it’s that, “A wolf will kill a coyote if he sees
it,” as Michael Kellett of RESTORE the North Woods
explains at every opportunity.
“Wolves have larger territorial needs than coyotes,”
elaborates Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
biologist Tom Schaeffer. “They live in well-established
groups,” including many adults of both sexes plus cubs, “who
require a larger area, sometimes as much as 200 square miles.
Thus you would be dealing with a smaller number of wolves
in an area than coyotes,” who live in family units typically
structured around a monogamous pair. A coyote family usual-
ly occupies about 24 square miles, though territories of up to
100 square miles are not unheard of.
Like Kellett, Scott Thiele of the Adirondack Wolf
Project plays up the wolf/coyote rivalry as he stumps upstate
New York, building a pro-wolf reintroduction coalition.
Twenty to 30 wolf packs, Thiele claims, could virtually elim-
inate coyotes from the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
Neither Thiele nor Kellett has anything against coy-
otes––but their audiences often do. The prospect that relative-
ly few wolves will knock off elusive coyotes bigtime has
earned wolf reintroduction the grudging endorsement of such
unlikely allies as the 300-member Vermont Sheep Breeders
Association and Maine blueberry farmers, who claim coyotes
prefer blueberries even to mutton. (Some California coyotes
are said to be quasi-vegetarians, with an insatiable appetite
Of course wolves and coyotes don’t always kill each
other. When both are scarce, they apparently hybridize;
genetic evidence indicates that the endangered red wolf of the
southern Appalachians originated as a long-ago wolf/coyote
hybrid. If prey is plentiful, wolves and coyotes may even
maintain a grudging coexistence similar to that of African
lions––the biggest predators in their habitat––and hyenas, the
versatile predator/scavengers. Maine wolf reintroduction foe
Jerry Duplisea swears he saw wolves and coyotes coexisiting
in Alaska as a U.S. Forest Service employee during 1973-
1974. “We already have tens of thousands of coyotes killing
the deer,” he says, claiming wolves would kill even more.
But do coyotes really kill deer, or just take advan-
tage of roadkills, starvation victims, and carcasses left by
hunters who don’t retrieve them?
Coyotes kill some deer, responds Quebec
Environment and Conservation Ministry biologist Marc-
Jacques Gosselin––but at an insignificant level. “Poaching,
accidents, all natural deaths, and all predators combined
account for less than 10% of deer mortality,” he maintains.
Coyote predation on deer, he says, “is really a phantom
problem. There is no proof, there are no numbers, there are
not even any anecdotes.”
New York predator biologist Ben Tullar has anec-
dotes, but no numbers. In any event, he claims, the so-
called eastern coyote is the same animal the early settlers in
the East misidentified as a wolf, who probably begat the red
wolf. Timber wolves, Tullar believes, never established a
permanent presence south of the St. Lawrence River because
they follow caribou and moose herds, while caribou and
moose never established a strong presence in New York and
New England below northern Maine and upper New
The only strong evidence of noteworthy coyote pre-
dation on deer comes from Mount Desert Island in Acadia
National Park, along the Maine coast––not exactly a typical
habitat for either species. A Maine Department of Inland
Fisheries and wildlife study done from 1977 to 1989 docu-
mented that the Mt. Desert Island coyotes eat “a lot of deer,”
according to University of Maine assistant professor of
wildlife Daniel Harrison: 863 deer during the study interval,
an average of 72 per winter, from a herd of 800 or more. The
study also established that the deer eaten were overwhelming-
ly the sick, injured, old, and very young, who mostly were
killed in deep snow that impeded their ability to run. But sim-
ilar results have yet to be confirmed elsewhere. The Mount
Desert Island coyotes may just be desperate, as small burrow-
ing mammals, their usual prey, find the rocky terrain hostile.
In any event, says Schaeffer, “Coyotes can have a
local impact on deer, but to say they are the number one fac-
tor in Maine for reducing the number of deer is shortsighted.
Coyotes are a part of it, but not all of it.”
The likelihood of his convincing Albert Bridges of
Brooklin, Maine, is slight. “Regarding the idiotic scheme to
bring wolves back into Maine,” he recently wrote to the
Bangor Daily News, “I will give each wolf I meet a free 30-
caliber distemper shot smack between the eyes. The wolf will
lose its craving for venison and become an instant vegetarian.
These shots work wonders on coyotes.”
Though wolves are now favored by the general pub-
lic, both wolves and coyotes are reviled by most ranchers and
hunters with a passion resembling the sublimated sexual psy-
chopathy of serial cat-killers. Despite international efforts to
prevent Alaska from massacring wolves last winter to make
more moose and caribou available to hunters, the state killed
150, as scheduled––and aroused hunters themselves killed a
record 1,472. There probably aren’t that many wolves left in
the Lower 48, where all species are officially endangered,
but coyote-killing continues apace, with neither season nor
bag limits, encouraged in many states by bounties. The fed-
eral Animal Damage Control program alone killed 97,953
coyotes in 1992, and 96,158 in 1993––a slight decrease, but
still markedly more than the recent low of circa 76,000
reached in 1988––if less than the average of about 250,000 a
year killed from the mid-1950s until 1970.
Not only are coyotes still killed en masse, but the
killings continue to be conducted with particular cruelty. Of
all native North American species, only coyotes may be
legally chased and strafed with aircraft. Coyotes are also rou-
tinely trapped, burned alive in their dens, and
And that’s not even getting into the outright sadism
inflicted upon coyotes, whose alleged predation on sheep and
calves often brings ferocious vengeance from the same shep-
herds and cowboys who may bottle-feed young hooved
stock––whom they themselves send to slaughter later.
Who does what to sheep
The most recent available national tally of alleged
coyote predation on sheep is from 1991, when they purport-
edly killed 391,000––56,000 of them in Texas. The year
before, coyotes supposedly killed 489,500 sheep, plus
129,500 goats. Wyoming records indicate that coyotes cause
47% of all pre-slaughter sheep and lamb deaths. But the fig-
ures lie, charged former federal coyote control researcher
Nate Cardarelli in a recent letter to the Akron Beacon-Journal,
because, “There is a tendency to blame the coyote when the
coyote is not responsible. Unless the attack is witnessed, no
one can know how a sheep died. Dogs are much more likely
to take sheep. Also, sheep and especially lambs die of acci-
dents, including falls, and disease. If coyotes find a freshly
dead lamb, they naturally eat it.” Cardelli estimates that only
about 2% of coyotes actually prey upon sheep, and believes
they rarely kill any who are more than three months old.
However, various state and federal programs reim-
burse ranchers for predator losses. No one provides compen-
sation for losses to illness or exposure.
If a predator wasn’t around to blame, one suspects,
ranchers would invent one––as history suggests they did. The
U.S. Forest Service initiated wolf “control” in 1905 by way of
currying favor with ranchers who then as now were suspicious
of federal encroachment upon grazing rights. Technical sup-
port came from the U.S. Biological Survey. Formed in 1884
as the Office of Economic Ornithology and Biology, it faced
termination by Congress unless it could find a justification
for its continued existence. By 1915, the Biological Survey
had an annual wolf-killing budget of $125,000; two years
later, as enthusiasm for wolf eradication grew, the budget
was up to $250,000, equivalent to perhaps $15 million today.
The Biological Survey killed a high of 523 wolves in 1920,
but could kill just 47 by 1927 and only nine a year later.
It was time to find a new scapegoat with fangs.
Coyotes, previously ignored, fit the bill. In 1931 Congress
formed the ADC, whose initials might have stood for
Accelerated Distribution of Coyotes. Intense hunting made
more food available to surviving pregnant females, whose
average litter size increased from four to as many as seven.
The extermination of wolves and a vogue for fox fur collars
throughout the 1930s and 1940s opened up new habitat.
Never before identified north of Oregon or east of the
Mississippi, coyotes reached coastal Maine by 1948.
Despite 64 years of concentrated anti-coyote effort, coyotes
have never been extirpated from anywhere they once colo-
nized (Tullar insists they were in the East all along).
Ironically, though wolves might kill coyotes as
Thiele and Kellett claim if they got the chance, the very pres-
ence of coyotes has inhibited wolf restoration in Wisconsin,
and may yet obstruct the scheduled return of wolves to
Yellowstone National Park in early 1995––assuming the cur-
rent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restoration plan isn’t
delayed by a lawsuit threatened by the American Farm
Bureau on behalf of ranchers. Wolves from Minnesota
migrated into Wisconsin in 1970, forming a breeding popula-
tion of about two dozen. Allegedly mistaking the wolves for
coyotes, hunters and ranchers shot many of them. In 1979
Wisconsin banned coyote hunting in counties known to have
wolves––but lifted the ban four years later. Said Wisconsin
Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Carroll
Besadny, “Since coyote hunting is an important part of the
northern Wisconsin deer-hunting experience, animosity
toward wolves would be created if the ban continued.”
The ban was restored in 1987, as part of a deal that
allowed the National Forest Service to authorize logging in
two-thirds of the area freqented by wolves.
Meanwhile, wolf reintroduction foe Jerry Kysar of
Worland, Wyoming, on September 30, 1992 shot the first
wolf known to be in the Teton Wilderness in more than 50
years––mistaking the animal, he said, for a coyote. A year
later almost to the day, bear hunter Allan Groft of Hanover,
Pennsylvania, got away with shooting the first wolf known to
be in Maine since 1953; his guide said she was a coyote.
If wolves are to be restored to fragments of their
former habitat in the continental U.S., it would seem that
humans must learn to tolerate coyotes first. Then, if the two
wild canines genuinely have a quarrel with each other, they
can settle it among themselves.