A coalition of conservation groups petitioned the federal government to list the coyote in parts of New Mexico and Arizona as endangered under the similar appearance clause of the Endangered Species Act.
The groups say the Mexican gray wolf and the coyote look very similar—to the point that wildlife managers cannot always tell them apart.
Michelle Lute, the carnivore conservation director at Project Coyote, has a Ph.D. in wild canid conservation. In an interview with NM Political Report, she said generally when trying to educate people about the differences between wolves and coyotes, people say to look for a bushy tail as well as differences in size and ear to head ratio. But those aren’t as obvious when it comes to the Mexican wolf and the coyote.
The adult Mexican wolf is larger than the adult coyote, although coyotes can be bigger than juvenile wolves. Coyotes tend to have more pointed ears and a more narrow, pointed nose.
Both canids have similar colors of fur.
In low-light conditions, the petition states, it can be difficult to distinguish between the canids “even for wildlife professionals and the most astute hunters.”
The petition gives the example of an off-duty Wildlife Services’ wildlife specialist who shot and killed a Mexican wolf thinking it was a coyote in New Mexico in 2013. This specialist had worked extensively with both canid species prior to the incident.
The main threat to wolves anywhere is human-caused mortality, often intentional shooting, Lute said.
“To protect one canid, you have to protect the other because of their similarities,” she said.
Coyotes have no protections in any part of their range. In New Mexico, people can kill a coyote without a hunting license.
Neither New Mexico nor Arizona requires hunters to learn the differences between the Mexican wolf and the coyote.
Greta Anderson, the deputy director of Western Watersheds Project, authored the petition. She said she was reviewing peer comments on federal documents about the Mexican wolf when she found a reviewer mentioning that the similarity of appearance clause in the Endangered Species Act could be used to reduce the number of wolves being killed because people mistake them for coyotes.
Anderson said that she used the Freedom of Information Act process to obtain mortality reports that are compiled when a dead wolf is discovered. This was a lengthy process that took years and still doesn’t paint a full picture of how many wolves are being mistaken for coyotes, she said.
“We have no idea how many wolves are actually killed for the same reason but the suspect is never found or the wolf is never found or it wasn’t wearing a collar,” Anderson told NM Political Report in an interview on Monday.
The petition lists incidents where people who killed wolves said they thought it was a coyote. In several of those cases, the wolf wore a radio collar. For example, in 2018, a person hunting coyotes in New Mexico discovered the radio collar on the canid he had killed and turned himself in to New Mexico Department of Game and Fish through its Operation Game Thief program.
Prosecuting people who have shot wolves can be a challenge because of the similar appearance, she said.
“It’s hard to prove the intent of someone pulling the trigger,” Anderson said.
A policy known as the McKittrick Policy means that the U.S. Department of Justice cannot prosecute people for killing wolves if they mistook the wolves for coyotes.
“The policy enables and encourages the killing of federally-protected Mexican gray wolves because it effectively eliminates the possibility of legal accountability for the poacher in question,” the petition to list coyotes states.
Listing the coyote as endangered would prohibit killing of coyotes in the area where the Mexican wolf has been reintroduced.
Conservation groups say that prohibiting the killing of coyotes will not lead to increased coyote populations.
“Coyotes maintain their own populations like most carnivores do,” Chris Smith, the southwest wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians, told NM Political Report.
He said shooting coyotes can actually lead to increased coyote populations because the remaining coyotes will have larger litters of puppies.
There have been efforts to kill off coyotes that have proved unsuccessful.
“Coyotes are one of the most resilient animals in North America,” Smith said.
Lute said that in addition to having larger litters, coyotes respond to increased mortality by having young females reach sexual maturity at an earlier age.
Killing coyotes can actually lead to more conflict with livestock, she said. This isn’t because of increased coyote populations. Lute said that when coyotes are killed, it disrupts the pack, or family, dynamics. That could mean younger coyotes that have not been trained by their parents how to properly hunt native prey. Lute said that could lead to the coyotes targeting easier prey, which includes livestock.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture compiles reports every five years documenting livestock losses. Lute said predators are responsible for only a small fraction of the livestock lost.
Livestock are more likely to die because of weather, birthing complications, consumption of poisonous plants or disease than of being killed by wolves. Lute said theft constitutes a bigger threat to livestock than predation.
Coyotes account for more livestock deaths than wolves do, she said. When coyotes do kill livestock, it tends to be sheep, especially lambs. Lute said coyotes have been known to take calves.
But killing canids has not been proven effective in preventing those deaths, Lute said. In fact, because it disrupts the pack dynamics, Lute said killing of wild canids can lead to more livestock deaths.
“Killing coyotes doesn’t do anything to prevent conflict and it might actually be making it worse,” she said.
Ranchers concerned about coyotes killing their animals could also benefit from increased wolf populations, Anderson said. She said a larger wolf population could mean a smaller coyote population.
Scientists found that after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park the coyote population decreased by as much as 50 percent.
Lute said that the coyotes and wolves tend to prefer similar habitats and prey species, but they do have slight differences. For example, the wolf hunts in larger packs and that allows it to potentially kill larger prey like elk.
“I think the most important thing is to have wild, native canids on the ground,” Lute said. “They both bring benefits.”
Another example of the use of the similarity of appearance clause to protect an animal is a group of map turtles found in Mississippi and Louisiana. There are four species of turtle that closely resemble the threatened Pearl River map turtle. Last year, following a lawsuit brought by groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing those four species of turtle—the Alabama map turtle, Barbour’s map turtle, Escambia map turtle and Pascagoula map turtle—as threatened because of their similar appearance to the Pearl River map turtle.