White Mountains are home to Mexican gray wolves and coyotes

White Mountain Independent (Original) Posted May 8, 2023 by Jennifer Dryden

Is it a wolf or is it a coyote?

The local Game & Fish office regularly gets calls about wolf sightings. However, it’s very common for people to mistake coyotes for wolves, said Paul Greer, the Arizona Game & Fish Department’s Mexican Wolf inter-agency field team leader.

The Mexican gray wolf does have similar coloring to the coyote, although there are some big differences between the two. Seeing a wolf or coyote at a distance can make identification challenging. That said, correct identification is necessary for hunters and all community members.

Coyotes can be hunted with a valid hunting license, but all game and fish laws must be followed.

By contrast, wolves are an endangered species and it’s illegal to hunt or kill them. The only time killing a wolf is seen as a legal action is when a wolf or wolves are a real threat to human life, or if wolves are seen actively biting and attacking livestock off of federal land, Greer said.

He added that simply seeing wolves chase livestock is not a legal reason to kill wolves. The wolves have to be seen biting or attacking livestock in order for eliminating a wolf to be a legal action.

Killing a wolf on federal land is illegal, Greer said.

The wolf laws allow livestock owners and ranchers to protect their livestock off of federal land. Any wolf kill must be reported within 24 hours. It’s also illegal to shoot wolves when they are seen feeding on a carcass, Greer said.

So how do you tell these similarly colored animals apart?

Coyotes are much smaller than wolves. Coyotes typically weigh between 20 to 35 pounds, are about 4 feet long and stand 1 to 2 feet tall at the shoulder. Coyotes move with a bounce, and they also have shorter legs and smaller paws than wolves. Coyotes have short, fluffy tails. Coyotes also have large, pointy ears and a pointy nose, according to AZGF.

Mexican gray wolves weigh between 50 to 80 pounds, are about 5 feet long and stand 2 to 3 feet tall at the shoulder. Wolves have a stiff, heavy gait, with long, lanky legs and large paws. Wolves have long, stringy tails that almost touch the ground. Wolves also have ears that are proportional to their head and their nose is blocky, according to AZGF.

There are 19 wolf packs in Arizona, most of which live in the White Mountain National Forest areas, Greer said. At the end of 2022, there were 241 Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, with 105 in Arizona alone.

Coyotes, on the other hand, can be found in abundance. “Coyotes are Arizona’s most common predator and found throughout the entire state. Though not always seen, their vocalizations, consisting of howls, yelps, and barks, are regularly heard during almost any night spent in the field,” according to azgfd.com.

Like most predators, wolves and coyotes are both opportunistic hunters. Wolves are carnivores for the most part but they will occasionally eat plants, whereas coyotes are omnivorous and will consume prey and plants. Coyotes can and will sustain themselves on a plant diet alone. Both animals will also scavenge off of prey that is already dead, Greer said.

Mexican gray wolves, also known as lobos, are the smallest gray wolf subspecies in North America. They were trapped and poisoned by the federal government beginning in 1915. According to biologicaldiversity.org, this was done “on behalf of the livestock industry.” Wolves were nearly gone from the West by the 1930s.

In 1973 the Endangered Species Act was passed and the Mexican gray wolf was added to the list of endangered species. By 1980, seven Mexican gray wolves were left, including three that were captured from the wild and four already in captivity. The wolf was reintroduced and released in Arizona and New Mexico in 1998.

Predation concerns drive controversy

Unlike coyotes, lobos are a highly controversial animal that spark big feelings from both livestock owners and environmentalists.

Wolves are the biggest predator for cattle in the area, according to Wink Butler Crigler, the granddaughter of the famous Molly and John Butler. Crigler has been running her family ranch near Greer, X Diamond Ranch, since 1991 when her father, Vince Butler, passed away.

Wolves kill more cattle than bears and mountain lions do, and wolves have been a big problem since about 2002, Crigler said.

Livestock owners see the aftermath of wolf depredations up close and feel the heartbreak of wolf kills on their livestock. It’s a devastating thing to see, Crigler said.

Crigler added, “It’s a very expensive and a very emotionally stressing position.”

Livestock owners that are near national forests can see more of this because that’s mostly were wolves stay, Greer said.

The Livestock Loss Board was created to reimburse ranchers for confirmed wolf depredations. When a rancher suspects a wolf depredation they should call USDA Wildlife Services. A representative from USDA Wildlife Services then has to visually confirm if it was a wolf depredation or not. Ranchers are reimbursed at market value for confirmed wolf depredations.

Crigler added that it can be difficult to find all of the wolf depredations when running cattle on hundreds of acres.

“You don’t ever know how many you lost; you know how many you find and you know how many that were confirmed,” she said.

Environmentalists argue that the lobo lived here before they were made nearly extinct, and they deserve to live here now.

“Reintroduction is essential to ensure that Mexican wolves exist in the wild and persist as more than just a population of zoo wolves,” according to gcwolfrecovery.org.

Environmentalists also argue that wolves mostly eat elk. Greer said it’s true that wolves predominately eat elk. He added that wolves and coyotes will both hunt livestock if the opportunity arises.

Livestock that are penned together and don’t run typically don’t see wolf depredations. When cattle stand their ground, research shows that they are less vulnerable to wolf depredations, Greer said.

Although U.S. Fish & Wildlife is the lead agency for wolf recovery, AZGF has been involved with reintroduction and serves as the on-the-ground agency. AZGF has five permanent staff members that work on the wolf program. They also work with ranchers and other livestock owners directly to avoid wolf-cattle conflicts, said Greer.

He added that AZGF supports livestock owners being reimbursed for wolf depredations.

He said livestock owners can call USDA-Wildlife Services to learn about wolf activity in their area and to learn how to avoid wolf-livestock conflicts by those who specialize in wolf behavior.

Wolves not always culprits

It’s not always the wolf that goes after livestock.

There have been cases where livestock owners thought they had a livestock wolf depredation and after investigation, it was found that it was a coyote depredation, Greer said.

He added that there have been cases where wolves have been present in a livestock areas and there haven’t been any wolf depredations.

Mexican wolves don’t kill every cow or calf that they come across, he said.

“We have a lot of wolf packs that have overlapped with cattle and don’t have any depredations detected or assigned to them during the course of the grazing season,” he added.

Wolves, and even coyotes, shouldn’t be in residential areas and if either animal is seen in a residential area, it needs to be reported, he said.

Greer went on to say that ranchers and members of the public are within their legal rights to scare off wolves and coyotes that come into residential or livestock areas. Although it’s less common for wolves to enter residential areas, it did happen in Alpine in 2017. The Prime Canyon Pack, consisting of one male and one female wolf, came close to residences. The Interagency Field Team hazed the wolves by shooting them with rubber bullets that are intended to scare the wolves, but not injure them. The Interagency Field Team is made up of representatives from AGF, USFWS, U.S. Forest Service, USDA-Wildlife Services and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Greer added that if community members see a wolf or coyote in a residential area, it’s a good idea to get loud, make yourself seem big and wave your arms to scare the animals off. He said wolves and coyotes will both get the message to leave the area.

Even after doing this, it’s still important to report the sighting, he said.

For more information on coyotes or to report a conflict with coyotes, call AZGF at (928) 367-4281.

To report livestock depredation or to learn more about wolf activity, call USDA-Wildlife Services at (602) 870-2081 or (623) 236-7201.

Other resources to contact are the Alpine wolf office at (928) 339-4329, the Pinetop wolf office at (928) 532- 2391 or toll free at (888) 459-9653.