Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Gray Wolves and Eastern Wolves

How many species of wolves are there in Michigan?
Michigan has two species of wolves: the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon). Until recently, it was thought that all wolves in Michigan were gray wolves. However, two independent labs in Ontario and Oregon have analyzed genes from wolves in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota and found two distinct species. The two wolf species do form gray/eastern wolf hybrids.

The eastern wolf is a close relative of the coyote (Canis latrans), and the two species are genetically similar. Some researchers reject the existence of an eastern wolf. They insist that the genetic combinations found in eastern wolves are the result of hybridization of gray wolves and coyotes. Wolf conservation cannot be put on hold until scientific consensus is reached. After reviewing the science, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan DNR are treating the status as if there are two species and their hybrids. We will continue to review the latest scientific information, and manage wolves in Michigan accordingly.

How can I tell the gray wolf from the eastern wolf?
On average, the eastern wolf is smaller and less stocky than the gray wolf. However, the size and shape of both species overlap considerably, and hybrids exist. The two species and their hybrids cannot be reliably distinguished just by looking at them. The only definitive way to distinguish between the two species is to examine their DNA.

If gray wolves mate with eastern wolves, are they really separate species?
The inability to interbreed is not a reliable test for species separation. Closely related species often can interbreed. Domestic dogs, coyotes and wolves will interbreed in captivity. This does not mean that dogs, coyotes and wolves are the same species. They have their own unique identity that is evident in their appearance, genes and behavior.

Are hybrid wolves bad for the population?
In some situations, hybridization can threaten the existence of a species. For example, hybridization with coyotes is a threat to the red wolf (Canis rufus) population in North Carolina.

By contrast, hybridization in the Great Lakes has occurred for as long as we have records. Genetic tests of wolves captured in the early 1900s in the Great Lakes region show evidence of hybridization. Initial results suggest that the recovered population of two species with hybrids is similar to the species and hybrid mix that occurred in Michigan prior to human persecution.

Do wolves in Michigan hybridize with dogs or coyotes?
Wolves and dogs will hybridize in captivity, and wolf-dog hybrids appear to be more aggressive and dangerous to humans, dogs and livestock.

The eastern wolf and coyote share a relatively recent common ancestor, and are thus more similar to each other than to gray wolves. Eastern wolves and coyotes have hybridized in eastern Ontario and New England, but this rarely occurs in the upper Great Lakes. Some researchers suggest that the eastern wolf genes are actually coyote genes.

Do eastern wolves and gray wolves eat different prey species?
Historically, the range of the eastern wolf overlapped with the range of the white-tailed deer, whereas the range of the gray wolf overlapped deer, elk, moose and caribou. In Michigan, both species prey on deer and moose.

How many gray wolves and eastern wolves are there in Michigan?
The Michigan DNR estimates the number of wolves in Michigan using a combination of radio-tracking and snow track surveys. These methods cannot distinguish between species, because species differences can only be detected through genetic analysis. Michigan's wolf population has a current minimum population estimate of 658.

Two recent genetics studies of wolves from across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan found evidence for eastern wolves, gray wolves and their hybrids. Exact percentages of each species are complicated by the existence of hybrids, and vary from one study to the next. Regardless of genetics, wolves in Michigan fill the ecological roles of large canid: they form packs, defend territories, prey on deer and moose, and displace coyotes.

Are gray wolves or eastern wolves endangered?
On Friday, Dec. 19, 2014 the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. issued an opinion immediately placing wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin back on the federal endangered species list. The court order vacated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's January 2012 decision to delist wolves in the western Great Lakes states. As a result of this ruling, the status of wolves in Michigan has reverted to "federally endangered," the same status they had prior to the Jan. 2012 delisting.