Arf or Awoo? Distinguishing Wolves from Coyotes

Wolves have been the subject of conservation efforts in the United States since their alarming decline in the 1900s brought on by intensive predator control programs. Following this decline, conservation efforts were made to restore wolf populations; the Endangered Species Act (ESA), for instance, granted to wolves in 1974 helped elevate their population count in various states.

However, an accidental killing of a nursing red wolf just this past year arose concern in environmentalists while coyote hunting contests in some states stirred up more tensions between conservationists and hunters. Sparks of disagreement are clearly in the air, with one of the main stances being that some wolves might be killed during the coyote hunting contests. Therefore, this article will strive to tackle how to distinguish wolves from coyotes in the wild.

For visual reference, here is an image detailing differences between a wolf—a grey wolf, in particular—to a coyote:

A visual reference summarizing the major differences between a grey wolf and a coyote.

A visual reference summarizing the major differences between a grey wolf and a coyote. [Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/]

The grey wolf is the most common wolf in North America. Wolves have a variety of colors; the grey wolf, specifically, ranges from light grey to black with some cream-colored wolves, similar to Arctic wolves, among the pack as well.

A lone gray wolf happily running through a snowfield.

A lone grey wolf happily traversing through a snowy field. [Image: http://i.kinja-img.com/]

The grey wolf is the largest wolf subspecies in its family. Running up to 2.5 feet tall, it can grow to five to six feet long, with males averaging from 95–99 pounds and females 79–85 pounds. They are generally the ones found throughout North America and Eurasia. They also have a broader snout and less pointed features when compared to the red wolf.

The red wolf can also be easily confused with coyotes, seen with the recent incident involving the accidental shooting of a red wolf mistaken as a coyote. The red wolves are also commonly known as Florida wolves or Mississippi Valley wolves. They have been the subject of legal battles between nature conservancies due to their continually dwindling numbers and critically threatened conservation status.

A visual reference of the Red Wolf (Canis rufus) vs. a Coyote (Canis Latrans) showing differences between the two species.

A visual reference of the red wolf (Canis rufus) vs. a coyote (Canis Latrans), showing differences between the two species. [Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/]

Red wolves are about 26 inches up to the shoulders, have a length of 4.5–5.5 feet long, and weigh about 50–80 pounds at maturity. They are much longer and more slender than the grey wolf, and their fur is grey-black with a reddish or tawny cast.

Red wolves.

A pack of three red wolves curiously watching their observers. [Image: http://b68389.medialib.glogster.com/

The coyotes, on the other hand, are much smaller in comparison to wolves, with body lengths averaging from 3–4.2 feet. Large coyotes are present, but rare, with the largest one recorded at 5.3 feet. Their fur color is a rich, fulvous red, usually interspersed with black, white, and light grey. It is much smaller than the grey wolf, with its defining characteristics being longer, pointier ears and a thinner frame, face, and muzzle.

A coyote is easily distinguishable through its much smaller and slender frame, long snout, and pointed ears.

A coyote is easily distinguishable through its much smaller and slender frame, long snout, and pointed ears. [Image: http://www.gpwmi.us/]

The vocalizations are also a give-away between wolves and coyotes. Wolves generally communicate through howls while coyotes communicate through yips, yaps, growls, yelps, and high-frequency whines. There isn’t much of a common ground between these two species. Wolves are pack hunters and considered to be apex predators—that is, predators that are at the top of the food chain in their habitat. Powerful muscles run through their broad bodies, like oiled machines that operate with an alpha pair and young pups. Perhaps the more common objections raised by farmers are because wolves can, at times, prey on livestock, although this happens somewhat rarely as wolves in large eat deer, boar, and caribou. Exceedingly territorial, wolves do not treat coyotes kindly, particularly when they are caught overstepping wolf boundaries or trying to take advantage of a wolf kill.

Grey wolf pack.

A beautiful grey wolf pack posing like well-versed models. These creatures are even more majestic in real life, but don’t confuse their tame appearance in this photo for a weakness—this pack will delightfully tear their prey apart if given the slightest chance! [Image: http://gb.fotolibra.com/]

At the moment, the wolves’ conservation status is still embroiled in a heated discussion on whether or not they should be kept on the endangered species list. It has been an on-and-off status battle between endangered and threatened since its first status assignment in 1974. The wolves play an important role in the ecosystem, with sufficient research finding that an introduction of wolf population regulates, and even is a cause of, declining coyote populations.

Wolves are generally aversive to humans due to a long-standing history of hunting. As such, due not only to their protected status but also to the history between wolves and humans, wolf sightings are generally uncommon except in designated wolf recovery areas. One of these more popular recovery areas is Yellowstone, which has about 95 wolves in the park alone and approximately 450 wolves in the entire Yellowstone ecosystem. If you wish to view these wondrous creatures in the wild, more information can be gathered by visiting Yellowstone’s website or the United States Fish & Wildlife’s page on wolf preservation efforts.

Don’t forget to utilize your Pocket Ranger® Rules & Regulations for related information on these wolves in your own state parks! Stay informed, and happy hunting!

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