Helping the Coywolf Along

There’s an interesting article in Scientific American’s 60-Second Science blog about the influx of wolf-coyote hybrids (known as coywolves) into the Northeast.  The new arrivals seem poised to fill a niche left open by the eradication of their wolf cousins and the availability of larger game, such as white-tailed deer, not typically taken by true coyotes.  But I do have a quibble with the Scientific American post.  In the article, Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum in Albany, says of the coywolf:

"Wolves have not made a comeback on their own in the area because they can't deal with human development, In this case, the hybrid has become more adapted."

I actually don’t think that’s entirely true.  Although coyotes are indisputably more willing to live in close proximity to humans, the real reason that wolves haven’t been able to make a comeback in the Northeast is that it is cut off from existing wolf populations in Canada.  In part, the barriers are natural, such as the St. Lawrence River, but they are also man-made: roads, development, and extensive wolf trapping along the Canadian boarder essentially makes southern Quebec impenetrable to dispersing wolves.  Also, it’s worth noting that while the coywolf phenomena is fascinating, they don’t yet fill the same ecological role as true wolves.  Unlike wolves, coywolves still take small game like rodents.  That means they probably leave less game for other smaller predators, such as bobcats, hawks, and owls.  By contrast, wolves typically suppress coyote populations, thus increasing small rodent populations and the diversity of other “mesopredators” in the landscape.

The bottom line is that fully functioning ecosystems still need their top predators, including wolves.  As NRDC pointed out in our petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a national wolf recovery plan, the Northeast (particularly parts of Maine) contains ideal habitat for a new wolf population.  It’s time to bring them back.