Mistaken Identity Proves Deadly When Hunters Confuse Wolves with Coyotes

A coyote in the wild. Photo by Todd Ryburn / CC BY 2.0

Study a photo of a coyote next to one of a wolf, and it’s pretty easy to distinguish the two animals. Wolves are stockier, heavier, with thicker legs, larger snouts, but thinner tails. Coyotes on the other hand, are more petite, with slim legs, tapering snouts, and bushy tails. In reality, telling the two apart is more challenging, particularly in low light, which has led to the deaths of several wolves during coyote hunts of late.

That danger mobilized a coalition of Californian conservationists and wildlife advocates who said that an approved coyote-hunting contest last weekend could have threatened California’s single endangered gray wolf, OR-7. This 3-year-old male came from Oregon, and has plotted a path across many counties in California, traveling a few thousand miles in all—something officials know because the wolf is collared, and has been tracked. OR-7 is the first wild gray wolf known to have survived in California—where gray wolves are listed as endangered—since 1924. He has also frequented Modoc County, where the hunt took place—a fact that those opposing the event used as fodder against it. The first color photograph of him was in fact taken there, as he darted through sagebrush.

“Coyote Drive 2013”, a three-day hunt between 9-10 February, took place in northeastern California’s Modoc County, and its opponents spoke out—in the form of 20,000  comments and petitions—not only about the risk of killing protected and endangered wolves, but also about what they considered to be the abuse of wildlife in general.

Despite the backlash, Californian Fish and Wildlife Service officials pushed forward with the hunt. Ranchers were the event’s sponsors, and to them, coyotes represent a threat to livestock and livelihood, and the hunt was viewed as a way of keeping the coyote population in check. Nevertheless, the Fish and Wildlife Service officials did agree to put special provisions in place to stop hunters from targeting wolves, namely educating both sponsors and contestants about the physical differences between coyotes and wolves, as well as impressing upon all involved that killing a wolf is an infringement on federal law—coming with a fine of several thousand dollars, or at worst a year’s imprisonment, in some parts of the country,

“We’d rather the hunt was called off altogether,” said Amaroq Weiss, the West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release. “But we’re pleased state officials will take extra measures that could reduce the risk of hurting or killing wolves.”

Coyotes have long been considered vermin that pose a threat to livestock and pets, and culling the creatures is a common practice. Yet there’s a growing appreciation among conservationists of the valuable role the elusive mammals play in helping to keep ecosystems healthy

Coyote advocates deem hunting the canids unethical. “The concept of making a contest out of killing wildlife is ethically indefensible and suggests that wildlife have no value other than as live targets in an outdoor shooting gallery,” Camilla Fox - Project Coyote executive director and a wildlife consultant to the Animal Welfare Institute told the Center for Biological Diversity. However, the focus of the recent dispute was ultimately on the potential impact of the hunter’s gun on wolves.

The criticisms and concerns echoed those that came after a coyote hunt in North Carolina this past December left seven critically endangered red wolves dead. A temporary state rule allowed for nighttime hunting of coyotes—which are easily confused with red wolves even in daylight. Red wolves, extinct in the wild by the 1980s, were reintroduced into North Carolina by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987, where a small population of roughly 100 now survives. So far, no one has come forward to claim responsibility for the deaths.

Derb Carter, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a press release that “Mistaken identity is a lethal, but preventable, threat to endangered red wolves.”

The raging conflict over whether or not coyotes are vermin may not be settled anytime soon, but educating hunters about the differences between the canids is at least the first step toward helping the beleaguered wolf.


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