BY SADIE DINGFELDER
On an overcast morning in May, Melissa Farley, 25, and her dog, Kai, went for a hike in Rock Creek Park. They were walking on the outskirts of the public golf course when two creatures emerged from the woods.
“At first, I thought they were stray dogs or lost dogs,” Farley says. “They were really beautiful, kind of grayish and cool in color, and almost as big as Kai.”
Kai, a 60-pound German shepherd mix, took off after them. Farley listened helplessly as the animals fought in the underbrush. When Kai returned, dog and owner sprinted back to their Brightwood condo.
When Farley reported the incident to rangers the next day, they told her she’d had a run-in with Rock Creek Park’s resident coyotes.
Farley, however, isn’t so sure.
“I’ve seen a lot of coyotes out west,” says Farley, who recently returned to D.C. after six years in Los Angeles. “This was no average coyote.”
Farley probably saw a coywolf — a coyote-wolf hybrid — says Javier Monzon, a genetics researcher at Stony Brook University in New York.
“We’ve known for a while that most Eastern coyotes are hybrids to some degree, and now we’re finding a greater degree of hybridization than anyone expected,” Monzon says.
In lay terms: The coyotes in Rock Creek Park are probably coywolves.
Just a few hundred years ago, coyotes stuck to the plains between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. As humans killed off wolves, coyotes took over their territory. The coyotes that pressed north into Canada came across the remnants of wolf populations and interbred, creating a hybrid creature that’s small enough to live undetected among humans, but large enough to feast on fawns (though perhaps not full-sized deer).
In other words, they are perfectly adapted to the I-95 corridor, Monzon says.
“The more deer there are around, the more wolf-like the coywolves tend to be,” he says.
Coywolves are about 62 percent coyote, 27 percent wolf and 11 percent dog, according to a 2013 paper by Monzon published in Molecular Ecology. Researchers have found them as close as Quantico, Va., and surrounding Prince William County, and game-management officials have confirmed their presence in Laytonsville, Md., in Montgomery County.
A Rock Creek Park spokesman denies their existence in D.C., however.
“We don’t have any evidence to suspect that our coyotes here in Rock Creek Park are anything other than just normal coyotes,” says the park’s acting deputy superintendent, Jeremy Sweat.
Game officials tend to shy away from the term “coywolf,” since it sounds scary, like “werewolf,” says Megan Draheim, a professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources, National Capital Region.
“It’s not my favorite term either,” she says. “To be a coywolf sounds like half-coyote, half-wolf, and that’s not really what we’re talking about. We are talking about coyotes that have interbred with timber wolves and have some wolf genes in them. It can be fairly negligible or it can be more,” she says.
Wolf genes seem to be spreading quickly and thoroughly through the Eastern coyote population, Monzon says. His 2013 study found that even Ohio coyotes had wolf genes, a surprising finding that suggests coywolves are moving south from New England through the D.C. area and circling back westward.
We won’t know the precise genetic makeup of Rock Creek Park’s canids until someone conducts a study, but they look pretty wolf-y to D.C. resident Gareth Wishart.
The 28-year-old conservationist, who’s tracked coyotes in Montana and wolves in Spain, says he’s seen coywolves in Rock Creek Park on two different occasions, most recently in January.
“It came to within about 8 yards of us,” says Wishart, who took a friend to the park for some wildlife spotting one evening.
“Their size is really noticeable — how much bigger they are than coyotes out west. They are much stockier and you can notice the difference in the size of their skull.”
Wishart, who wrote about an earlier coywolf encounter for Gizmodo.com, was thrilled to find the apex predators in such an urban park.
“It’s a presence you can really feel when you’re out in the woods I think,” he says. “It’s one that I appreciate, at least, and I hope others do as well.”
Farley has a different perspective. Though Kai escaped with just two puncture wounds on his hindquarters, both dog and human are wary of the woods these days.
“I liked it better when I was growing up in D.C., and we didn’t have any coyotes or coywolves or whatever,” she says. “But they’re here now, so what are you going to do?”
Are they dangerous?
Not to humans, though outdoor cats and unattended dogs have reason to be concerned.
The most important thing is to walk your dog with a leash, says Rock Creek Park’s acting deputy superintendent, Jeremy Sweat. Coyotes have been living in Rock Creek Park since at least 2004, and there have been only two reported attacks, both on dogs that were running through the woods off-leash, he says.
“Especially in the spring and early summer, a lot of these coyotes might have dens in the park. They might have young pups. If a dog approaches them off leash, they are much more likely to act aggressively to protect their young or protect their territory,” Sweat says.
If the presence of coyotes or coywolves makes D.C. slightly scarier for pets, that goes double for rodents, says Megan Draheim, a professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources, National Capital Region.
“They eat a lot of rats and mice,” she says. “That’s something we can all appreciate.”