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Experts howl at 'coywolf' headlines; limited NH hunting season called for

New Hampshire Sunday News

January 13. 2018 8:08PM
Eastern coyotes have some wolf DNA, but New Hampshire experts say the animals are still just coyotes, so the moniker making headlines lately — “coywolf” — does not apply. (Christine Schadler)

A wildlife advocacy group is asking the state Fish and Game Department to shorten the season on coyote hunting, currently allowed year-round.

The petition by Voices of Wildlife in New Hampshire, which calls for a hunting season from Oct. 15 through March 31, will come before the Fish and Game Commission in Concord on Wednesday at 1 p.m.

Coyotes are "the most persecuted of all the wild animals," says Linda Dionne of Raymond, VOW's president. "They're the only fur-bearer right now that has open season all year long."

The petition, which is supported by the Humane Society of the United States, is likely to reignite a long-standing debate about the value of these wild creatures.

Many consider them varmints, a threat to deer, livestock and domestic pets. But others believe they play a critical role in New Hampshire's ecosystem, preying largely on rodents and other pests while keeping the deer herd healthy by culling the weakest animals.

The debate also comes amid alarming media reports from other states about the animal. A Fox News report warned of a "coywolf," a "mutant animal" stalking people and pets in a suburb of New York City "as authorities try to track down the beasts."

There's just one problem, experts here say: There's no such thing.

"It's not a phrase that biologists use," says Christine Schadler of Webster, a researcher who has studied coyotes for decades. She is New Hampshire's representative to Project Coyote, a national organization that she said "promotes coexistence."

The eastern coyotes that we see and hear in New Hampshire have some DNA from wolves - as well as from domestic dogs, the result of cross-breeding as the western coyote made its way eastward, starting around 1875, she explained.

So our coyotes are bigger, heavier and, well, wolfier than their western cousins. But that doesn't make them wolves, says Schadler.

Schadler is friends with the researcher who coined the term "coywolf" years ago after doing DNA studies of coyotes living on Massachusetts' North Shore. His work proved that New England coyotes have wolf DNA, she said.

But so do our domestic dogs, Schadler said. "If you have ever walked into a person's house who owns a chihuahua, you know how terrifying that animal can be," she said.

As coyotes moved east across the Great Lakes states, they bred with a type of red wolf found in Michigan as well as with the eastern wolf in Canada, Schadler said. Meanwhile, both red and gray wolves were being wiped out in eastern states by extermination campaigns, she said.

"We eliminated the wolf and that opened up a hole in the ecosystem for coyotes to come in," she said.

And coyotes were happy to move into the breach.

The first sighting here was reported in 1944, but it's likely they had been here for a few years by then, according to Patrick Tate, a wildlife biologist for the Fish and Game Department.

Tate says "there is no such thing" as a coywolf. "They are eastern coyotes," he said.

Ordinarily, it takes hundreds of thousands of years for a species to evolve and change size, Tate said. But as the western coyote interbred with wolves on its way here, those changes happened more quickly.

The proper term for the coyotes we see and hear in New Hampshire is "canis latrans variant," Tate said. "It's a hybrid, or a variant animal; it's not a distinct species."

The genetic makeup of these animals can vary from one region to another, he said. Some even have genes from modern dog breeds, the result of interbreeding with domestic pets.

But Tate said it's a disservice to this animal to call it a coywolf. "And it causes great confusion amongst the public," he said.

Eastern coyotes have not replaced wolves in New Hampshire, Tate said. While they do take fawns when they can, they "have no ability to impact moose," he said. "They simply don't have the body size that a wolf would have to do that."

The interbreeding with wolves has continued north of the Canadian border, Schadler said. And because coyotes will disperse as far as 500 miles to find a mate, she said, "Those coyotes are carrying those wolf genes now far and wide."

Today, she said, "the largest eastern coyotes are as big as the smallest eastern wolves." But that still doesn't make them wolves, Schadler said. "I think the eastern coyote is a coyote," she said.

Tate said those most opposed to coyotes are people who have lost pets, sheep or chickens to the animals. He said in his experience, the trapping community here sees the value of having coyotes on the landscape, while deer hunters are more likely to want them wiped out.

A Jaffrey sports store currently is holding a contest, awarding a prize to the hunter who brings in the heaviest coyote by March 31.

Tate said Fish and Game does not regulate such contests, which he said have been controversial. From the hunters' perspective, he said, it's comparable to a bass fishing competition or deer pool.

But he also understands why others find such contests offensive.

Hunting coyotes doesn't seem to reduce the population, Tate said. These territorial animals actually produce larger litters if their packs decrease.

But Schadler said that's not the point. "The part of this that I find repugnant is the lack of morality or ethics that is involved in encouraging wanton waste of a wild creature," she said.

New Hampshire is one of 42 states that allow year-round hunting of coyotes, she said. "It's recreational killing of an animal, which is obscene," she said.

Dave Anderson is director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests; he is a co-author of the "Forest Journal" column in the New Hampshire Sunday News.

Anderson said coyotes are "superbly adaptable," which explains why they've been spotted on Boston Common, in New York's Central Park and even trotting down Main Street in Concord.

He thinks part of our fascination with coyotes is the traits they share with domestic canines. "How can we love our dogs and then profess to hate their wild cousins?" he asked.

"My own personal feeling is that we should learn to appreciate the ecological niche they're filling and their role in the forest," Anderson said.

But he knows a lot of folks, including deer hunters, "who have this real deep-seated antipathy about coyotes," he said.

He has both deer and coyotes in his backyard and orchard. And he said it's "a special thing" to hear them howling in the distance.

But Anderson said he'll never forget hearing a coyote up close when he was in the woods one night. "When they vocalize nearby, that can really make all the hair stand up on the back of your neck," he said.

"It's a very primal, very humanizing experience. The idea that once we would have been prey."

When Schadler first moved to New Hampshire, she made a research project out of a sheep farm in Kensington with a history of coyote predation. She got border collies, built fences, cleared brush and "hazed the hell out of the coyotes for the first few years."

She chased them with airhorns and put pepper along the fence lines. "And all the years I had sheep, I never lost a sheep," she said.

"I am living proof," she said. "All people need to have is the desire to coexist with these things."

Evolution favors coyotes here becoming larger, Schadler said. And she believes the animals are moving toward "a more wolf-like niche in the ecosystem." She's working on a book on the subject, "Becoming Wolf."

But she said eastern coyotes "are not there yet."

Her favorite coyote story didn't happen in the woods, but in downtown Portsmouth. Schadler was waiting in her car at a red light when she saw a group of about 10 people waiting for the light to change.

Waiting with them was what she first thought was a large dog. Then she took a closer look and realized, "That's a coyote."

"The light changes, the people cross and the coyote paddles his way across the street. And the people are completely oblivious."

It's emblematic of how well adapted these animals are, and "how unconcerned they are with our lives," she said.

It also shows that coyotes are everywhere, she said.

"Every one of us lives within the territory of a pack of coyotes."

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