Research to determine whether Maine's coyotes mixed with wolves

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2002

LEWISTON, Maine (AP) -- Researchers from Canada and Maine are working to determine the origins of Maine's coyote population, and their findings may have a bearing on plans to reintroduce wolves in the Northeast.

The researchers are studying the DNA of about 100 coyotes and trying to learn more about their history and geographic movements, and to determine whether they are ''true coyotes'' or whether they have mixed with wolves.

The answer about the coyote's origins could confuse the already controversial issue of whether wolves should be reintroduced to Maine.

If wolves and coyotes have mixed, producing hybrid animals, then restoring wolves to the Northeast might become a moot point.

Maine, with its large stretches of forest, is the best state in which to ''consider righting a wrong that we've inflicted on our wildlife,'' said Paul Nickerson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But if New England was populated by wolves that mated with coyotes, then restoring the original species would be a waste of time, he said.

The results of the $20,000 study, funded primarily through an Outdoor Heritage grant, are expected this spring.

Wolves were exterminated from Maine more than a century ago and while some Mainers feel strongly they should be reintroduced, others are just as determined to keep them out.

Maine legislators even passed a law prohibiting reintroduction without their approval.

Both wolves and coyotes were hated and feared by people. Both were hunted, trapped and poisoned in large numbers.

But while it has taken millions of dollars and many years of effort to help wolves rebound in other parts of the United States, coyotes are thriving across the nation without human help.

In Maine alone there are an estimated 10,000 to 16,000 coyotes, even though they can be hunted year-round. Yet they are still a mystery, one that's been puzzling wildlife biologists for decades.

For example, the eastern coyote found in Maine is 40 percent larger than its western cousins. In Maine, females weigh about 30 pounds and males 35, but some coyotes grow much bigger. The state record is 65 pounds. One theory is that eastern coyotes are bigger because they've interbred with wolves. Another is that the coyotes' size is the result of mating with dogs. Still another theory holds that natural selection favors the larger predators.

Wolves, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act, numbered less than 1,000 by 1974 in the Lower 48. But the population has rebounded to 3,000 in the Midwest, and populations have been established in the West and Southwest.

The wolf's survival is assured and the goals of the federal wolf recovery plan have essentially been met. Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a proposal pending that would pave the way for reintroducing wolves in the Northeast.

In Maine, though, it's not just a question of whether to restore the wolf, but which species would be the right one.

One of the study's goals was to search museums in the United States and Europe for specimens of wolves that once lived in New England.

Some smaller wolves, such as the red wolf or the Algonquin, which is found in Ontario, mate with coyotes, biologists say. Some larger ones, such as those found in the Laurentide region of Quebec, rarely mate with coyotes.

Walter Jakubas of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said there are a lot of good reasons for the study.

''Can our trappers or snarers tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote if they have one? If our coyotes turn out to be mostly wolf, does it make sense to continue trapping and snaring? Does it make sense to restore the wolf?''

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