It was many years ago that I first heard rumors of the “new wolf”–a.k.a. the coyote-wolf hybrid, or coywolf. I had never seen them, though. I had spent time in the Mojave Desert, around the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff, and in the high desert of Nevada and Montana. This is the home range of the western coyote and I saw them often and tracked them now and then. They were small creatures, bigger than a fox but in no way like a wolf.
In the 90s, I took up residence at a remote cabin deep in the subarctic wilderness of Alaska, and I occasionally heard the distinctive yips and cries of western coyotes. But the tundra leaves poor tracks and I never even saw one. No surprise, though. Coyotes in Alaska are more secretive and cautious as they are actively suppressed by northern wolves, and the deep wilds of the far north is real wolf country, so coyotes made it a point to remain elusive.
But having been born in the American Deep South, where it is whispered red and gray wolves still wander the wildest places, I had an old love for the mysterious wolf. I found rumors of a new wolf species compelling in a profound, almost spiritual way. Like many environmentalists and rewilders, I longed to see the return and prosperity of the wolves. They have been unjustly persecuted by European settlers for centuries. Even to this day, ignorant and simple minded groups such as the FaceBook-sanctioned group, Kill All the Wolves, encourage the wholesale slaughter of wolves–misguided by the myth that wolves are in any way dangerous to humans. And the USA has suffered a deluge of equally ignorant, shallow-minded politicians who play to public fear to secure votes and thus have sanctioned renewed wolf hunts in many states. This is bizarre behavior, based on the profoundest superstitious whims, for there has never been a documented case of wild American wolves attacking a human being. Over a decade ago a teacher was killed in the Alaskan panhandle and large canine tracks were found nearby. At first folk thought it was wild wolves but it later turned out that they were habituated wolves (wolves taught that humans were food sources by careless persons leaving food out for them), or that they were domesticated wolves that had been set loose and gone feral. After centuries, wild American wolves have proven themselves shy and avoidant of humans–a wise move given humans’ historical willingness to kill off species for the most tenuous reasons.
I remember so well when I first read of the new wolf. It was an icy subarctic night in the Alaskan bush. I was lying in bed in the cabin’s warm loft, Daphne sleeping softly beside me. The wind was howling beyond the rafters and I was reading a book on wolf behavior I had picked up at the used book store on a supply run to Anchorage in the autumn. There were tales and rumors of creatures with traits of coyote and wolf, said to weigh as much as 85 lbs. Frissons coursed my spine when I read of them, a deep excitement at the thought of the return of the wolf, and I longed to see them . . . this dawning species.
It was years later that we moved to the Canadian Maritimes and bought our little homestead, Twa Corbies Hollow, deep in the wild wood. Over the ensuing years I have had many encounters with eastern coyotes, some of which have looked no different than the small creatures I encountered in the Mojave. But many have been larger, clearly with wolf in them. And now and then I have encountered a great one. I wrote of one such encounter in my newest book, “Seasons of the Sacred Earth”. But the most magnificent of the new wolves I ever encountered was one night near a rural road while driving home. I saw it cross the road, travelling alone. It was midwinter and bitterly cold, but the sky was clear and the moon was full. A pale, silvery light fell over a snowy landscape of rolling hills, swaths of meadow and beyond forests of mixed hard and soft woods.
The creature was huge, and though I know some will doubt me, I will say–based on a lifetime’s experience in the wild–that it was at least 80 lbs. I suspect more. It had a shaggy coat and looked far more like a wolf than a coyote. It took no notice of my car as I pulled to a stop, and there was no other traffic upon this lonely country road. There was a stiff breeze and it stood in a manner I had seen wolves do in Alaska: upright and proud, neck outstretched, sniffing the air. And then it began doing something I had not seen in years–not since I once had a pet domesticated wolf that I rescued from abandonment in the Yukon Territory. It cocked its head to the side, focused on a point of snow, then leapt high into the air and came down with the grace of a cat, plunging its head into the snow and bringing up a mouse or vole which it promptly gobbled down. Over and over it did this for maybe twenty minutes, an apparition of lupine beauty in the silver-hued dark. I longed and wished and cursed myself for not having brought a camera. Then something must have caught its interest because it lifted its head, focused on the wooded hills lying west and trotted off.
Wolves are often thought of as predators of large ungulates, and they are. But it is little known the role they play in the control of small pests such as rodents. They have oft been observed stalking and pouncing mice and voles as a way of supplementing their diets between opportunities to feed on large animals. It has also only recently been learned the essential role they play in diversifying the ecosystem. In Yellow Stone Park wolves have somewhat reduced and contained herds of elk and mule deer, and with less grazing pressure, trees have been able to regrow. This has created range for the re-establishment of beaver populations. That has provided for the expansion and maintenance of waterways and all the benefits to the ecosystem that wetlands bring.
While many deaths are attributed to moose, elk and other large ungulates which are known to charge and trample humans from time to time, it is the wolf–disinterested in and harmless to humans–that remains the focus of the hatred of the ignorant and narrow minded. Yet why is no mystery. Ranchers hate them for taking a few odd livestock. In Europe, progressive governments have remedied this by recompensing ranchers for their relatively minuscule losses, but the North American governments have refused to take part in such a progressive practice. But here is the simple, distilled truth: mostly wolves are hunted so fat wannabe tough-guys can go in the woods and shoot a deer and drink beer and boast over their kills. That’s it. Nothing more complicated than that. I hunt and I farm, but I will gladly make way for the wolf. It has as much right to the land as I. Perhaps more. And I have found it is certainly possible to live in peace with wolves.
The coywolf may be the wolf’s new chance. They possess all the intelligence and adaptability of the coyote, along with its instinct for successfully hiding from and evading humans. They have the size and strength to take bigger game when need be. They have successfully beaten again and again those malicious humans who would hunt them out. And the world is better with them. They do more for the sacred land than humans with their interminable cities and zones of devastated ecosystems. They are indeed more worthy of the land than we.
To learn more about the coywolf, please follow the link below to watch the CBC’s new documentary on the emergence of this fascinating species.