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Monday, January 21, 2013

A Wolf By Any Other Name

Less than a year after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed Michigan’s gray wolves from the federal endangered species list some perplexing management questions have arisen.  In particular, the DNR’s recent conclusions about wolf/coyote genetics in the Lower Peninsula have created confusion.

The federal government effectively turned over wolf management in our state to the DNR on January 27, 2012.  The state’s official wolf count then was 687 (made in 2010) and biologists said that Gogebic County in the western Upper Peninsula had “the highest density of wolves in the United States.”  The DNR claimed there were 131 wolf packs in the U.P. and a small number of wolves in the northeastern Lower Peninsula.
Many Michiganders welcomed the de-listing, because it might make it easier to get permission to kill wolves threatening cattle, dogs, and other domestic animals, and pave the way for wolves to be treated as a game animal. This past summer, House Bill 5834 was introduced to let the Natural Resources Commission establish Michigan’s first wolf hunting season.  This seems consistent with all the lines in a conservation success story – a species brought back from the brink of extirpation to be managed wisely under the North American Conservation Model.  But there’s a fly in this ointment. 

The federal delisting followed a period in which the DNR gradually recognized what citizens had been claiming for 25 years -- that wolves had crossed the Straits of Mackinac into the Lower Peninsula.  In a July 27, 2010 announcement about the trapping of a wolf pup in Cheboygan County, the DNR’s Wildlife Division Chief, Russ Mason, stated: “This is another example of how wolf recovery has been successful; however, it also underscores why Michigan needs full authority to manage these animals as they begin to expand across the state.”  But missing was any public statements about population goals, research objectives, or any other basic elements of a wolf management plan for the Lower Peninsula.  And coincidently, wolves in the Lower Peninsula seemed to go “poof” soon after with DNR statements this spring that wolf-like animals verified there are actually coyotes.  That conclusion, based on recently-published genetic tests, seemed likely, at least in the short-term, to relieve the DNR of figuring out how to manage wolves in the Lower Peninsula.

In June of this past year, the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy asked the DNR to clarify the agency’s position on wolves in the Lower Peninsula.  Dr. William Moritz, Natural Resources Deputy, replied on August 17:

“There have been four sightings of wolves in the Northern Lower Peninsula since 2004.  Three sightings were camera photos or video and one was a radio-collared animal caught in a trap.  Since the initial photo in 2004, we have conducted track surveys annually and have not confirmed the presence of wolves in the area.  We did discover one set of tracks found in 2011 in northeast Cheboygan County that were likely the tracks of a wolf.

In October of 2010, some canid pups were observed and subsequently marked that exhibited the physical appearance of wolves.  Those animals were genetically tested and found to be coyotes with some wolf ancestry on the maternal side, but back several generations.  Enclosed is an article published in the American Midland Naturalist that details these findings.  Since the radio-collaring of two of those animals, we have also determined that they act as coyotes with small home ranges and limited daily movements.

We continue to monitor the Northern Lower Peninsula for the presence of wolves.  While we have no recent confirmed sightings, it is plausible that a few animals are present.”

The article referred to by Dr. Moritz was authored by two staff members of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and long-time DNR researcher Dean Beyer.  Titled “Coyotes in Wolves’ Clothing” it classified three pups the size of wolves as coyotes based on DNA analyses.  The authors acknowledged that a biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Branch had identified the first pup captured as a wolf based on dentition (teeth), size, and weight, had found adult-sized wolf tracks at the den where the trapping occurred, and saw three more “wolf” pups nearby.  A DNR biologist similarly identified two later-trapped pups as wolves.

However, the authors concluded all three trapped pups were coyotes based on “genetic assignments.”  They stated that a female wolf could have bred with a coyote in the Upper Peninsula and its descendants later crossed to the Lower Peninsula.  Alternatively, a female wolf could have crossed to the Lower Peninsula and bred with a coyote several generations back.  Such an event likely occurred 10 to 20 years ago, with certain genetic information passed on in coyote litters.

There is nothing in this published research to suggest errors in those genetic assignments.  So, assuming their analyses are valid, this should be troubling news.  Does this effectively stifle protection of any wolf-like animals in the Lower Peninsula because anyone who shoots or traps such an animal can easily get off the hook?  The DNR reportedly told a trapper who later caught the three pups in question that it was up to him whether he killed the animals because they had been classified as coyotes.  The trapper released them, but the incident suggests that the DNR will not protect wolf-like animals, refusing to invoke the so-called “look alike” clause of endangered species protection law, unless their genetic information matches “pure wolf.”  And could there be a bunch of “coyotes in wolves’ clothing” in the Upper Peninsula?

Despite some “behind the scenes” criticism by biologists over the classification of Lower Peninsula wolves as coyotes, officials don’t seem to care much.  The DNR hasn’t even said whether having wolves in the Lower Peninsula is a goal.  DNR biologist, Adam Bump, recently acknowledged there are likely some “real” (but unverified) wolves in the Lower Peninsula, but offered no indication of where management might be headed.

In January of 2012, Russ Mason, chief of the wildlife division for the DNR had said giving the DNR the right to manage gray wolves was “a big win for the state.”  He added, “the best thing about this decision (federal de-listing) is that it turns management of wolves back over to Michigan, and (other) state wildlife agencies that have brought back 90% of the wildlife in this country, whether it’s deer or turkey or elk.”
Of course, with management rights comes responsibility.  It seems reasonable to expect animals that weigh 90 or so pounds and leave four to five-inch foot prints will be properly classified – in a legal and ecological sense – not just according to a DNA analytical model.  “Super coyotes” like the three pups are likely equivalent of wolves to most Michiganders.

When wolves were extirpated, or at least reduced in numbers, in the Midwest and East a century ago, coyotes showed up and thrived.  The natural range expansion of coyotes came from multiple strongholds in the West.  It was rapid and complete.  There are now few areas east of the Mississippi River where coyotes are absent.

In parts of southeastern Canada interbreeding between timber wolves and coyotes has been fairly-well documented.  And in North Carolina, re-establishment of red wolves has been hindered by such mixing of red wolves and coyotes.

Still, there are northern wolf populations in parts of Quebec as well as the Northwest where there are no coyotes.  The recent restoration of wolf packs in Yellowstone National Park involved importing “pure” gray wolves.  The idea is that while Yellowstone has coyotes as well, the wolves won’t mate with them if there are enough wolves.  Research suggests wolves mate with coyotes only where wolves are scarce and coyotes abundant.

The genetics of the wild dog family in North America have only recently been explored in any detail.  Some scientists now think eastern coyotes should be classified as a separate species from coyotes from the west.  That’s because eastern coyotes have some DNA typical of eastern wolves as well as DNA characteristic of “western coyotes”.   A study in Maine in 2004 found that about one-fifth of eastern coyotes sampled there had some DNA characteristic of wolves and about five percent had some DNA typical of dogs.

The nature of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wolves is also unclear.  Some may be gray wolves, others resulted from matings (long ago) among gray wolves and Eastern timber wolves, which many geneticists believe is a separate species.

The finding of “coyotes in wolves’ clothing” in the Lower Peninsula is yet another potential blurring of genetic lines.  The size of what the DNR is presently calling “coyote pups” is well beyond the ancestral hybridization affect seen in Maine where adult coyotes may reach 60 pounds.  It’s also interesting that the DNR says the Lower Peninsula animals in question have coyote-like tendencies while the coyotes in the East are said to have wolf-like tendencies such as pack hunting.

At any rate, there seem to be more questions than answers.  And that’s getting the new era of wolf management off on the wrong foot.  More genetic testing of wolves (and coyotes) in both Peninsulas seems warranted, and the DNR should address a number of management scenarios for the Lower Peninsula “wolves.”

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