Some identification and life history…
Michigan Department of Natural Resource Wildlife Division surveys reveal wolves are present in all the counties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Michigan DNR wolf surveys indicate there is a minimum wolf population of 662 adult wolves. This is a minimum population since young of the year wolves are not surveyed. Wolves seem to draw strong opinions from Michigan residents, outdoor enthusiasts, and amateur wildlife photographers. I have observed recently there is considerable misunderstanding in Michigan of wolf identification and facts about their population and life history.
I have posted DNR wolf biologist confirmed wolf photos on several popular Facebook sites including Michigan Nature, Pure Michigan Wildlife Photography, Nature through Michigan Eyes, and several other U.P. nature sites. Many of the comments by outdoors persons and amateur wildlife photographers insisted these photos were of coyote or in a few cases “coywolves.”
On several sites there was a high rate of misidentification. Of 95 specific comments regarding wolf versus coyote identification, 87% insisted the wolf photo was of a coyote. Five percent of the comments identified the wolf as a “coywolf” and only 8% agreed it was definitely a wolf. Many people felt extremely strongly it could not have been a wolf.
After reading all the comments it appears one major misunderstanding people have is that the average wolf is a massive individual. Upper Peninsula DNR Wildlife studies compilation lists wolves at 76 pounds for an average U.P. female wolf and 87 pounds for an average adult male. Brian Roell, DNR wildlife biologist who has long worked with Michigan wolves stated the record wolf to date was 116 pounds. Roell stressed that, “100-pound wolves are very rare just like a 500-pound bear.”
In comparison, Tyler Petroelje, Research Scientist for The State University of New York, that is conducting the DNR’s long running U.P. Predator Study listed the average size of U.P. coyotes as 26 pounds for adult females and 30 pounds for adult males. Petroelji stated the record size coyote for the U.P. study was a 38 pound male. I suspect many people look at juvenile wolves with a summer fur (thin fur period) and think they must be coyotes. As one U.P. outdoorsman, Adam Wilson of Sault Ste Marie put it, “So, if looks even remotely close to 50-plus pounds it’s not a coyote.”
Cody Norton, Large Carnivore Specialist of the Michigan DNR Bear and Wolf Program provided the following wolf versus coyote features to look for when trying to determine which you are seeing:
• Wolf snout is blocky, coyote snout is pointed
• Wolf ears appear rounded, coyote ears appear pointed
• Coyote ears are larger in proportion to head size. A 30 lb. coyote can have ears as big or bigger than an 80 lb. wolf
• Coyote coats are typically lighter than wolf coats
• Wolves are larger and bulkier, coyotes are shorter, sleek, and lighter on their feet
• Wolves are approximately 6 feet long from the nose to the end of the tail. Adults stand 30-34 inches tall at the shoulder. The feet of wolves are large, with tracks measuring 3.5-4 inches wide and 4.5-5 inches long.
• Coyotes are approximately 3 feet long from nose to the end of the tail. Adults stand 18” or less at shoulder height. Coyote tracks are typically 1.5” wide and 2.5” long.
Norton stated, “The U.P. wolf population appears to have been stable for the last eight years or so suggesting they’re likely nearing carrying capacity. This follows a long period of population growth from when we initially surveyed the first three known wolves in 1989 until 2011.”
Norton said the average U.P. wolf pack is about five animals. “Packs are typically comprised of a breeding pair, pups from the current year, offspring from previous litters, and occasionally other wolves that may or may not be related to the breeding pair. So, pack size and pup survival influence whether or not pups will be the dominant component of a pack, and this will change throughout the year as pups (and adults) die. We don’t measure litter size (we survey in the winter after pup mortality has occurred), but litters in other places are typically in the range of 4-6 pups.”
Norton goes onto say in other studied wolf populations “up to 60 percent of the pups may die in the first six months to disease and malnutrition.” He said they found three collared wolves dead a few years ago from canine distemper. Likely the wolves were exposed from other predators and/or raccoons in areas where that disease had been prevalent. Mange has been found in U.P. wolf populations in the past although Norton indicated mange was more common in foxes.
Regarding the high rate of misidentification that I referred to at the beginning, I asked Cody Norton if people had an unrealistic view of what a typical wolf looks like. Many people insisted that my summer wolf photos were coyotes, however when they accepted that they were wolves, many more insisted the animal was too skinny.
Norton said the typical wolf picture in people’s mind is a large adult wolf in a snowstorm with a full winter coat. When they see a summer wolf in person or a photo, they think they look very thin. He went on to stress that wolves are like Olympic marathon runners spending 8 to 10 hours a day on the move. Obviously, there is no extra fat on a normal wolf.
Biologist Roell added, “I think most folks don’t realize that all canids during the summer months look much smaller compared to the winter months when they all look bigger with the heavy prime coats (fur). Also, wolves are not heavy chested bulky bodied animals, they are narrow chested and built more like a greyhound than a husky.”
Coyotes were not native to the Midwestern north woods. Richard Theil, noted Wisconsin wildlife biologist, reports as wolves were removed from the ecosystem coyotes were able to move into the open ecological niche. Coyotes have become abundant in the north woods area of the Lake States. In recent years a number of circumstantial indicators suggested coyote populations had fallen in the U.P.
Norton said “We don’t have a great method for estimating the U.P. coyote population, but information gathered from the U.P. Deer Camp Survey, organized predator hunt numbers, and input from trappers and predator hunters all suggest that the coyote population was noticeably lower four-five years ago than it had been previously. However, this coincides with a significant decrease in the deer population following the severe winters of 2012-13, 2013-14, and 2014-15, and the coyote population appears to now be rebounding, likely as a result of recovering deer populations.”
My son, while working on his Masters Degree from Michigan Tech and working with DNR’s U.P. Predator Study for a period, noted first hand coyotes avoid wolves’ core territory. He flew with the DNR survey plane tracking radio collared coyotes and wolves and saw coyotes stay out of the large areas where wolves defend. Wolves kill other canines in those core areas which explains the coyote’s avoidance and why some dogs (especially ranging hunting dogs) are killed each year.
Another stereotype some outdoor enthusiasts have is that it is extremely rare to see a wolf, however, that is not really the case in the Upper Peninsula. In the last few years I have seen several wolves near our home outside Crystal Falls as well as quite a few observations at our deer camp and the surrounding counties while I am working or recreating.
People who draw in more deer by way of feeding or fields of preferred deer food crops are also likely to see more wolf activity. Norton responded to my question about the number of times I have seen wolves stand their ground at relatively close range with the following: “My experience is similar to yours. Wolves are curious and seem to be less skittish than coyotes. I’ve often had them hang back about 30 yards from me and pace to try to figure out what I was (especially if using a predator call).”
I asked Norton if “coywolves” had been documented in Michigan. He said “coywolf “is an informal term who’s use has gained popularity in the Maritime Provinces and New York. It suggests that wolves and coyotes are actively hybridizing (1/2 wolf and 1/2 coyote). After considerable genetic testing the only evidence found in Michigan to any mixed genetics was, “In 2010, three young-of-the-year animals were caught and collared in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan that had the physical characteristics of wolf pups (Wheeldon 2012). However, genetic analysis indicated that the pups were coyotes and all from the same litter. But, the mitochondrial DNA (passed down from female ancestors) contained evidence that there was introgression from a female wolf an unknown amount of generations back in their pedigree. This was most likely the result of a re-colonizing female wolf in the northern Lower Peninsula encountering a male coyote and mating with it in the absence of any male wolves. Wolf-coyote hybridization in the western Great Lakes Region (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and western Ontario) is rare where wolves have established populations because they can find a mate of the same species.”
A few people believe that the current wolf population in the U.P. is the result of the DNR “planting” a number of them back into the region. That is not true; wolves reestablished themselves by moving from a strong population in northern Minnesota to northern Wisconsin. The increasing numbers of wolves in northern Wisconsin moved into the U.P. in the late 1980s. There is still some movement of wolves back and forth across the border rivers between Michigan and Wisconsin. Historically there was a very small transfer of four wolves conducted by Professor Robinson of Northern Michigan University in cooperation with the DNR to the U.P. back in the late 1970s. None of those animals survived more than a year and there was no evidence they reproduced. Of course, there have been some widely publicized transfers of wolves by federal natural resource agencies to Isle Royale National Park and the Yellowstone National Park.
Wolves elicit a very mixed reaction among Michigan outdoor enthusiasts. Some are completely thrilled with increasing wolf populations and relish any chance to encounter this majestic predator. Others dislike wolves due to the impact they can have on deer, their deer hunting, or locally on livestock and pets (dogs). Many are in the middle where they actually get a thrill from seeing wolves or their sign, although they are not as thrilled when it is regular sightings in their favorite hunting area or close to where they live. Regardless of how you feel about them, the reestablishment of wolves in Michigan has been a success of a native species reestablishing itself. No matter what happens in terms of Federal and State wolf management, residents of the Upper Peninsula will continue to live with wolves and occasionally hear the howl of the wolf.