A key DNR biologist says there's no evidence yet that a potentially dangerous wolf-coyote hybrid has made its way to Wisconsin - studies have firmly established them in the Eastern United States and in Minnesota as far back as 20 years ago - but Adrian Wydeven does acknowledge that overall predator levels in the state are as high as he has ever seen.
"There are more predators now than ever," Wydeven, the DNR's chief wolf biologist, told The Lakeland Times in a recent interview. "Probably in the Northwoods the density of predators is as high as it's ever been. . . . For historical times this would probably be the highest predator population we've ever seen."
It's not just wolves, either, Wydeven said. The state is full of coyotes and bears as well.
Coyotes live in every county in the state, for example, in urban areas as well as rural, and are found in Madison, Milwaukee and, outside Wisconsin, even in Chicago. Harvest estimates would put the number of coyotes in Wisconsin at between 40,000 and 50,000, Wydeven said, and, though he thinks those numbers are biased, there's no question the coyote population is abundant.
"It still suggests that coyotes are at an all-time high throughout the state," he said. "On a large scale, I don't know absolutely what's going on but I know statewide we are seeing more coyotes than we've ever seen in this state. You can go anywhere in the state and find coyotes."
Ditto for bears, at least as far as numbers go.
"Our bear population is probably at the highest level we've ever seen in the state," Wydeven said "But then again we've got a bear population that is fed throughout the summertime, so we may be holding more bears on the landscape than what is the natural bear capacity."
As for wolves, right now Wydeven puts that count at about 1,000 for this time of year. Wydeven said the DNR uses a mid- to late-winter wolf count as its base and makes estimates from there.
"We know it probably doubles in the springtime, and our population estimation was I think 800 for the state in late winter," he said. "We know that would have been 1,500 or 1,600 by spring when the pups were born and then from thereon it's somewhere between the two extremes. I guess as far as where we are right now, we would be in the range of 1,000-something animals."
About 80 percent of those live in northern Wisconsin, Wydeven said.
Coywolves in Wisconsin?
With all those wolves and all those coyotes roaming around in close proximity, a question some are asking is: Is it possible that a hybrid wolf-coyote species known as the coywolf has made its way to Wisconsin?
The very idea of a coywolf is frightening to many because of the increased danger the animals could pose to livestock, domestic animals and perhaps humans. The supposed coywolf is larger than a typical coyote - almost double the weight, on average - and, while smaller than the gray wolf, nonetheless feeds on deer instead of small mammals.
What's more, the hybrid retains the coyotes' tolerance of people and urban areas, making encroachment on human environments more likely. Coywolves also display stronger pack behavior, especially in hunting, are more aggressive than regular coyotes, and seem to be more intelligent.
For a while, the existence of the coywolf was branded as an urban legend - and there are still skeptics - but a variety of DNA studies have now confirmed the hybridization.
As described in Scientific American, in 2009 Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum, Abigail Curtis and Jeremy Kirchman tested DNA samples from 686 eastern coyotes and measured 196 coyote skulls. Based on the genetic analyses and measurements, the team concluded that mating between female coyotes and male wolves was abundant.
In 2010, Jonathan G. Way of Eastern Coyote Research in Osterville, Mass., led a Humboldt Field Research Institute team in examining the genetic nature and relatedness of coyotes in eastern Massachusetts. Their study reported that eastern coyotes in Massachusetts clustered with other northeastern canis populations and away from western coyotes, eastern wolves, and gray wolves. They found the eastern coyotes to contain DNA from both western coyotes and eastern wolves, consistent with a hybrid origin from the two species. There was no evidence of either domestic dog or gray wolf DNA in the animals.
"These results indicate that the eastern coyote should more appropriately be termed 'Coywolf' to reflect their hybrid origin," the authors wrote.
Yet another study in the Journal of Mammalogy by Christine Bozarth of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute confirmed hybridization.
The coywolf is thought to have originated in Canada, but has made its way through the northeastern United States to Virginia and even to North Carolina. They have not been found in South Carolina.
So far, no evidence has established the migration of coywolves into the Midwest from Canada or from the eastern United States. But speculation and anecdotal evidence abounds.
Just last December, for example, a hunter shot a 104-pound coyote in Missouri - a remarkable weight for a species that averages about 35 pounds. In addition, the size and shape of the animal's feet were similar to those of a wolf, the Missouri Department of Conservation reported. However, the agency stated, DNA testing showed the animal to be a large coyote, period.
In Wisconsin, Wydeven said he had just received a report of a dead wolf in Bayfield, which biologists said looked like it could be a wolf-coyote mix. The DNA testing on the animal could take another month.
That notwithstanding, Wydeven was adamant there was no new wolf in Wisconsin.
"We have not demonstrated any of that in the Great Lakes region," he said. "We're not seeing wolves mating with coyotes."
Genetic relations, hanging out
Though he said no cross-mating is going on in Wisconsin, Wydeven acknowledged the existence of coyote genetic material in the state's wolf population, though he said that likely occurred a long time ago.
"Genetic research in our region shows that some of our wolves have some of the the genes of that small race in them," he said. "For the most part our wolves are a mix of these smaller eastern wolves and the larger gray wolves. We are not seeing breeding of coyotes on the landscape."
Wydeven said wolf biologist Dave Mech of the U.S. Geological Survey recently completed a survey of the wolf biologists in the Great Lakes region, and nobody had found animals they considered to be wolf-coyote hybrids.
"Now, if you look at the genes of our wolf population, they do have coyote genes in them," Wydeven said. "But what geneticists tell me is that means sometime in the historical past, or geological past, there was some breeding with wolves and coyotes, but that doesn't mean that is an ongoing regular activity."
To be sure, Mech has publicly expressed skepticism about the Kays' study finding that eastern wolves are hybrids.
"How do you reconcile this with the fact that gray wolves typically don't breed with coyotes, but kill them?" the Associated Press quoted Mech as saying. "We have no records in the West of wolves hybridizing with coyotes, even in areas where single wolves looking for mates have dispersed into the middle of coyote country."
Perhaps not in the west but in fact a 1991 study in which Mech participated found that gray wolf-coyote hybridization had indeed occurred, and likely in the present as well as in the historical and geological past. What's more, the study, Introgression of Coyote Mitochondrial DNA into Sympatric North American Gray Wolf Populations, said hybridization was high, and found it to be occurring not just in Quebec and Ontario but in Minnesota.
The study even invoked the term 'coywolf,' and placed the animal in northern Minnesota.
"Of the 13 genotypes found among the wolves, 7 are clearly of coyote origin, indicating that genetic transfer of coyote mtDNA into wolf populations has occurred through hybridization," the study stated. "The transfer of mtDNA appears unidirectional from coyotes into wolves because no coyotes sampled have a wolf-derived mtDNA genotype. Wolves possessing coyote-derived genotypes are confined to a contiguous geographic region in Minnesota, Ontario, and Quebec, and the frequency of coyote-type mtDNA in these wolf populations is high (> 500%). The ecological history of the hybrid zone suggests that hybridization is taking place in regions where coyotes have only recently become abundant following conversion of forests to farmlands. Dispersing male wolves unable to find conspecific mates may be pairing with female coyotes in deforested areas bordering wolf territories."
Note the present tense rather than the past. The ongoing nature of hybridization and the threat it could pose was underscored in the study's conclusion.
"Our results suggest that in disturbed areas, previously ecologically distinct species may interbreed if one is rare and the other abundant," the study stated. "Thus, in addition to the direct effects of habitat destruction and depredation programs on wolves, there is a need for biologists to be concerned with the insidious effects of interspecific hybridization."
The study specifically placed the coywolf in northern Minnesota: "Coywolf genotypes are restricted to northern Minnesota, southern Ontario and Quebec, and Isle Royale, areas where coyotes have become abundant only since 1900."
The study dealt, too, with the question of how mating could occur when gray wolves most often like to kill coyotes. The answer is, even if the wolf population isn't particularly low, hybridization can occur if the coyote population mushrooms and the two must share habitat.
"Dispersing wolves may breed with coyotes if the latter are abundant, and the two species come into frequent contact," the study stated. "In the observed hybrid zone of northern Minnesota, southern Ontario, and southern Quebec, coyote densities are increasing and have become substantial only in the last few decades (cf. Georges, Though wolf numbers here are not particularly low, there are many local regions where wolves are rare in comparison to coyotes, such as near human settlements."
To some the question is, isn't that what has happened in Wisconsin, especially in northern Wisconsin? In explaining how wolves and coyotes co-exist here, Wydeven acknowledged as much.
"The coyotes have come back in a big way," Wydeven said. "I think that initially when coyotes are living in forested areas and wolves start to establish themselves in forested areas, wolves are starting to have some impact on coyotes. Those used to be kind of the core coyote areas. But wolves kind of moved right into those core kind of areas and probably displaced and killed off some of the coyotes."
Now, he said, some of the core coyote areas are outside the wolf areas and coyotes from the outside are moving back into those wolf areas.
"So initially we saw sort of a response of coyotes from wolves moving in and now we're seeing coyotes kind of coming back again," Wydeven said. "I think in our wolf areas, we still have a lower density of coyotes but certainly no lack of coyotes than we have outside of wolf areas. I think now it's just a matter that we have this tremendous coyote population and they are just filling in every place they can."
But Wydeven departs from the 1991 study. Rather than point to the possibility of hybridization when coyotes are abundant and come into frequent contact with dispersing wolves, Wydeven says the coyote has just become smarter. The bottom line is, Wydeven said, the coyotes are learning where they can "hang out" and not be killed by wolves.
"There seems to be an adaptation or learning curve that initially the coyotes didn't know where to hang out," he said. "They got to know where the wolves are hanging out and learned where they could hang out to be ultimately safe on the landscape and not be killed by wolves."
That may be true, but the 1991 study suggests hybridization may also be an overlapping possibility.
"Coyote distributions, once confined primarily to plains and deserts, recently have expanded greatly following the spread of civilization and the reduction of gray and red wolf ranges," the study stated. "Perturbation of habitats historically occupied by gray wolves may have led to increased interactions between coyotes and wolves. If so, one would predict hybridization to be more frequent in wolf ranges where coyotes have become abundant only recently."
One study does not a case make, of course, particularly one which merely examines the possibility of ongoing gray wolf-coyote hybridization, and particularly in light of official denials.
Indeed, this week Mech carefully walked back the 1991 study he co-authored, saying genetic science is more precise and advanced than it was back then.
"In 1991 molecular genetics was in its infancy, so it was logical then to conclude that the mtDNA we found that was coyote-like resulted from crossing with coyotes," Mech told The Times Tuesday. "Since then, the field has exploded, and many geneticists - although not all - now see this mtDNA as resulting from the eastern wolf which is more closely related to coyotes."
Mech said he was not a geneticist himself and so could not judge the genetics.
"Thus I can only examine behavioral and morphological evidence," he said. "I have no position on what the hybrids really are genetically, and even the geneticists probably won't agree for many years."
For his part Wydeven said, if anything, wolves are becoming larger, not smaller, as one would expect with hybridization.
"If you look at historical samples of the wolves, they were actually more predominately the smaller wolves earlier, and it's probably going more toward the larger gray wolves in part because, with the endangered species protection, wolves coming from Minnesota and those spreading from Ontario and Manitoba into Minnesota tend to be these larger gray wolves to the west. That's what is spreading back into Wisconsin, so if anything it's probably tending toward more of the grayer wolf."
So, Wydeven says, the new wolf is really the old wolf, even if in new clothing.
"We don't have a new wolf," Wydeven said. "We've had the same wolves we've always had. It's just that we've learned a little more from the genetics, and I don't know if you pay much attention to the human genome. They've found out in recent years most of western Europeans have a little Neanderthal genes in us. I'm not calling myself a caveman yet, but that kind of thing has been going on in animals and human beings forever."
Still, while one study does not a case make, the anecdotal evidence in Wisconsin - reports of animals looking suspiciously like cross-breeds - combined with recent studies and other scientific evidence, such as the 1991 study placing the coywolf in Minnesota, combined further still with the acknowledged migration of wolves from Minneosta into Wisconsin all add up to a story that is surely to be continued.
Richard Moore can be reached at email@example.com.
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