You can spend thousands of dollars watching wolves in Yellowstone or $50 – $200 to get a much closer and scientific view of the new canine species that is replacing the wolf: the coywolf. And if you’ll have trouble getting to Cape Cod by dusk or dawn, you can even stay in the house of wildlife biologist Dr. Jon Way so he can take you out to see the animal he studies.
Way can take you along for field work when he’s using his radio collars to track the animals that are laregely taking on the role of predator across the east, where the wolf was wiped out. He describes his accomodations as “rustic casual:” you sleep in the basement and eat with his family. But the real attraction is the coywolf and Way, one of its strongest advocates. He is pushing to change the way the coywolf is classified and treated.
Some state wildlife agencies (in the mid-Atlantic) have been treating these coywolves, which are conspicuously larger than western coyotes, simply as an invasive species from the west. They appeared after the wolf was wiped out. Invasive (as opposed to native) means they don’t belong and were introduced by humans. The invasive designation means about the only management these new coyotes get is hunting by the federal government through its controversial Wildlife Services agency. Even in states where it’s not labeled invastive, there’s no bag limit and long hunting seasons–something Way wants to change.
“We should not be calling this animal a coyote. This animal is really a native animal, essentially a product without human assistance,” he says. “By getting rid of wolves, we clearly opened up the niche for this animal.”
The evidence is showing that the coy-wolf–a term Way predicts will catch on within a year or so–is really a hybrid of the coyote and the endangered Eastern Red Wolf (Canis rufus). Those invasive-native categories have come under attack in books like Playing God in Yellowstone because they presume the American wilderness was pristine and frozen before Europeans showed up.
The coywolf has forced biologist to rethink many old classifications. They are discovering that many of the previously distinct species of wild dog may really be the same. The red wolf is being reintroduced but one of the obstacles is that the animals go out and breed with coywolves.
What we’re witnessing is evolution in our lifetimes. The wolf’s niche was largely wiped out by development, but a slightly different niche opened up and the coywolf filled it. The coywolf is more amenable to living near people and more flexible in its diet: it eats tiny rodents up to deer.
Eating deer may be the thing that makes the coywolf popular. Way thinks the coywolf could be the answer to the exploding deer population–if people would just let the coywolf do its job.
“The answer is right in front of our face,” he says. He supports the reintroduction of the wolf, but thinks they’re never going to be able to be as widespread or effective as the coywolf in modern America. Wolves won’t be able to exist in suburban areas where deer generate complaints.
Way would like to end the no bag limit hunting that is keeping coywolves in check. About 400,000 coyotes are killed every year, according to a story by Mike Finkel in Audubon. “That is more than 1,000 coyotes a day — almost a coyote a minute,” Finkel writes. The federal government is, remarkably still in the business of predator eradication and its Wildlife Service division itself killed 89,300 coyotes in 2008.
The Adirondacks tourism office, for example, boasts that call coyote hunting “one of the fastest growing sports in the country.” With an estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 coyotes in New York, the office pitches, “there are plenty of opportunities in the Adirondack Park.” In Way’s Massachusetts, last year hunters killed 442 coyotes, almost double the previous years’ total.
Way wants to encourage another way to enjoy the coywolves: come out an watch them in action. Aside from his personalized treks, he hopes to open a center so people can learn and enjoy them all the time.