By Eric Sharp
Detroit Free Press Outdoors
When is a wolf not a wolf? When DNA tests say it’s a hybrid whose coyote ancestors mated with a wolf several generations back.
That’s what the Department of Natural Resources believes about the handful of wolves that have been killed in the northern Lower Peninsula in the past few years.
A number of people beg to differ, saying that although wolves and coyotes do interbreed, the animals the DNR tested looked like wolves, were as big as wolves and were killed within 100 miles of the Upper Peninsula, which has a well-established population of gray wolves.
“The DNR doesn’t have any money to manage a wolf population in the Lower Peninsula, and they don’t want the social problems they’ll get if wolves start eating pets and scaring people,” said Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy in Bath. “So they’ll call them coyotes in the Lower Peninsula and let hunters shoot them and eliminate the problem.
“But a lot of people have seen these animals, and no one would call them a coyote. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. And those animals are wolves.”
Brian Roell is the DNR’s wolf program coordinator in Marquette, managing the Upper Peninsula’s population of 600-1,000 wolves. He said that although a few wolves have crossed the ice from the U.P. to the Lower Peninsula, the numbers are so low that they are undetectable.
Roell said that tests carried out on the animals that have been shot or trapped in the Lower Peninsula show that genetically they are coyotes, although they had many wolf characteristics such as longer legs and bigger bodies.
Fijalkowski answers, “A female coyote is 25-35 pounds. One of the wolves trapped in the Lower Peninsula was a young female that weighed 74 pounds. No matter what the (DNR) says, that was a wolf.”
Genetics studies of coyotes and two wolf species, the gray wolf and eastern wolf, prove they crossbreed and that it might not be possible to slot the resulting animal neatly into a pigeonhole.
The eastern wolf survives mostly in eastern Ontario and Quebec. It used to be called the Canadian wolf and at that time was called a subspecies of the gray wolf, although many taxonomists now consider it a separate species.
Eastern wolves are smaller than gray wolves and usually are found where deer are the primary prey. The bigger gray wolves predominate in places where moose are more common, which makes sense because a moose is much bigger and harder to take down.
Gene studies have shown the eastern wolf to be similar to the red wolf of the southeastern U.S., which was driven to extinction in the wild and has been recovered by a program of captive breeding and releases.
But genetic studies also show that the red wolf shares 75-80% of its genes with the coyote, while studies in eastern Ontario show that the eastern wolf has a big chunk of gray wolf genes in some regions and coyote genes in others.
To muddy the waters even more, in some parts of North America many wolves carry genes from the coyote, eastern wolf and gray wolf, and might even have some domestic dog thrown in.
In a similar vein, for 10 years the DNR has been doing verbal battle with the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy over the status of cougars in Michigan. Despite hundreds of credible reports, many from the same small areas over decades, the DNR refused to acknowledge even the existence of the big cats in the state.
But the state agency has confirmed the presence of 16 cougars over the past four years, and the latest confirmation from an automatic trail camera in the central Upper Peninsula left no doubt as to the animal’s identity.
However, the DNR still insists that cougars were extirpated from Michigan by the early 1900s, there’s no proof they’re breeding in Michigan today and that the animals it has confirmed probably had wandered in from Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Once again, the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy rejects that argument as a subterfuge by the DNR to avoid spending funds it doesn’t have to manage an animal that is on the endangered species list.
“In 2003 we found cougar scat 100 yards from where the (DNR) confirmed the presence of a cougar in 2009. That can’t be a coincidence,” said Pat Rusz, director of wildlife programs for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.
Rusz said reports collected by the wildlife conservancy and others show that cougars continued to survive at low numbers in a few relatively remote areas, mostly in the U.P., and that the population might be increasing.
“This picture shows the species in all its glory,” Rusz said. “Sometimes, when you get photographic clarity you also get clarity of thinking. We’d like the DNR to examine this and accept the possibility that we are dealing with a remnant population of these cats.”