For more than a decade now, coywolves have been living in Vermont.
A what? In fact, it is a hybrid of wolf, coyote and dog. And it is a creature of which state officials are quite mindful these days.
“They certainly are in Vermont,” said Louis Porter, commissioner for the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife. “There’s a continuum of canid (a mammal from the dog family) species that go all the way from coyotes to Eastern wolves. Any individual (animal) can fall on that continuum depending on what their genetic makeup is.”
Technically speaking, a coywolf is the informal term for a hybrid descended from coyotes and a gray, Eastern or red wolf.
“We’ve had at least one case where it was pretty definitively determined to be a wolf-coyote hybrid,” said Chris Bernier, a Fish & Wildlife biologist. That was in Glover in 1997.
“It was a 72-pound animal,” he said. “The DNA analysis at that time suggested that it was an Eastern wolf-coyote hybrid.”
In 2006, a 92-pound gray wolf was verified in Troy, Bernier said.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the potential for them to be in Vermont is real,” he said. “We know that our coyotes are much larger (than Western coyotes), and this is not just specific to Vermont.”
The larger size of Eastern coyotes, Bernier said, is a direct result of breeding with wolves.
Thus, Eastern coyotes appear to be a hybrid themselves.
And that is notable for a few reasons.
According to a 2009 report in “Biology Letters,” Northeastern coyote skulls are not simply larger versions of their Western relatives, but show additional characteristics similar to wolves.
This supports this article’s hypothesis, which backs up Bernier’s, that they are larger because they have bred with wolves.
The article says the wolf-like traits help the Eastern coyote be more efficient deer killers.
Randolph resident Sean Lavin said he believes he has seen coywolves several times at his mother-in-law’s residence in Brookfield. Once in 2014, and twice in 2015, he photographed what he believes to be a coyote-wolf hybrid.
He said they looked much larger than a typical coyote to him.
Bernier said that besides the wolf in Troy and the wolf-coyote hybrid in Glover, Fish & Wildlife has not been able to scientifically determine any other wolf-mixes in Vermont.
“We take several reports a year (of coywolves) from folks on average who believe they have seen a wolf or a coyote-wolf,” he said.
When there is the possibility of collecting physical evidence, Fish & Wildlife will dispatch staff, whether it’s a game warden or a biological expert, to look at tracks or to test scat.
Usually these reveal themselves to be coyotes, in terms of DNA. However, Bernier said it’s the opportunity for collecting evidence is difficult. Sometimes too much time has elapsed, or the report comes when it’s difficult to find tracks.
“The trouble is, this is not an easy thing to determine on the fly,” he said. “Without the physical evidence that we can test, it’s very difficult to conclude what people have seen.”
Bernier said, for the most part, mammals on the spectrum ranging from coyote to wolf, and anywhere in between, are peaceful, going about their business in the woods. The trend as of late has been the size of the animal, which has spooked some witnesses. And the fear that larger animals such as coywolves might eat cats and other domestic animals, or take down deer.
“I don’t deem them as a concern for human health and safety,” Bernier said. “That said, any animal given the situation can pose a threat to human health and safety when it’s cornered or sick or hungry in an abnormal way.”
He said there have been no real issues reported between humans and coyotes in Vermont. There has been no incidents resulting in any major injury, or anything other than a fearful moment.
For example, he has heard reports of people running into coyotes howling. “Some of those could have been coywolf mixes. We’re not really sure what’s out there … It’s unraveling as we speak.”
Bernier said he can’t pinpoint whether or when there has been a surge of coywolves in recent years — or if there even is one.
“I can’t suggest that there’s been a discernible increase or decrease,” he said. “I don’t see that there’s been any real trend either.”
He said calls and reports of coywolves ebb and flows with news stories in the media more than anything, adding that any time an article on coywolves is published, he’ll likely hear about more sightings.
And there have been some high-profile articles on coywolves recently.
The Smithsonian published an article recently in which they claim Eastern coyotes are themselves coywolves. That article said that wolf DNA in coyote droppings has been found as south as Virginia, and that at least 20 coywolves live within New York City.
An article published on Halloween in the “Economist,” speculates that the coyote DNA has made the hybrid more tolerant of people and noise, perhaps counteracting the genetic material from wolves. Wolves, according to that article, dislike humans.
Bernier said he wants Vermonters to get in touch with Fish & Wildlife anytime they have a sighting; that data is crucial.
“We’re waiting for the opportunity to collect physical evidence and we can’t do that unless the public is engaged and getting a hold on us,” he said.
Fish & Wildlife is also working on a online reporting form so that people can report their rare animal sighting through the Web.