The Genesis of ‘Coywolves:’ A Story of Survival

Coywolves, as in hybrid coyote-wolves, emerged in response to the obstacles created by European settlers hundreds of years ago.

An eastern wolf-coyote hybrid in West Virginia.
An eastern wolf-coyote hybrid in West Virginia. ( BY-SA 3.0 US)

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The end of the Thanksgiving season provides an opportunity to look back on America’s history with an eye to our changing environment. The “New World,” while harsh at first to pilgrims, was a pristine habitat for many plants and animals, including eastern gray wolves. Abundant populations of eastern gray wolves capitalized on the continent’s lush temperate forests.

However, the settlement of Europeans in America quickly led to widespread deforestation and hunting. While the needs of settlers were met and settlements continued to grow, the situation facing eastern gray wolves was grim. Faced with a diminishing habitat, smaller and smaller prey populations, and even poison traps set by humans, the eastern gray wolf population was in rapid decline. However, these same conditions made an ideal habitat for western coyotes, which began to move in from the southwest.

Faced with a shrinking population and a smaller pool of mates, eastern gray wolves began to mate with western coyotes, leading to the development of a hybrid species known as the “coywolf.” The coywolf blends several characteristics of wolves and coyotes to create a species that is uniquely capable of thriving in a habitat disturbed by human activity. They are adapted to forested land, open terrain and even sub-urban and urban areas and are opportunistic eaters—able to eat deer, rabbits and small rodents, as well as fruits and other produce. Although they are not protected under the Endangered Species Act and several states have liberal hunting laws regarding coywolfs, their unique adaptations have allowed them to thrive.

While this is indeed an incredible example of species hybridization and evolution in a relatively short time frame, the origins of the coywolf provide a valuable reminder that we must take a stand for wolves, which are, yet again, under attack. In the coming weeks, President Obama will sign a budget bill from Congress that may be primed with policy ‘riders’ to remove wolves from the endangered species list in Wyoming, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Moreover, the budget riders will prevent citizens from challenging the de-listing of gray wolves in these states in court. Without the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, gray wolves in these states will be under threat yet again from state management plans that have, in the past, allowed for unregulated, on-sight killing of wolves.

Though wolves were able to overcome obstacles like habitat loss, hunting and poisoning in the past by hybridizing into coywolves, the remaining population of pure-bred wolves will not be able to overcome the targeting killing that will be allowed if these riders are passed along with the final budget bill. Stand with us and urge President Obama to veto extinction

Divya is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she received a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies, and was an intern with Earthjustice's Communications team. She previously worked with the Orangutan Foundation International in Indonesia and the Environmental Support Group Trust in Bangalore, India.