Maine’s coyotes are destined to become a bigger, bolder, more aggressive wolf-like animal, and in time will pose an even greater threat to the state’s white-tailed deer population.

The Eastern coyote has long been recognized by state biologists as a coyote-wolf hybrid, first documented in Maine in the early 1900s. But Roland Kays, a leading researcher of coyote DNA at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said the Eastern coyote found in Maine is becoming more “wolfy” as natural selection favors the dominant wolf genes that make it a larger, more effective predator than its Western counterpart.

“They will continue to get bigger,” Kays said. “They have more wolf genes than the Western coyote. From an evolution point of view, it’s helping the animal survive better. Those (wolf) genes that make it larger are being passed on. I see no reason that will change.”

The implications could be significant in Maine, where deer hunting is a popular recreational activity and contributes to the state’s economy. In 2013, more than 84 percent of all those who hunted in Maine pursued deer, according to a survey commissioned by the state. Deer hunting that year provided a total economic contribution of $101 million.

An adult male Eastern coyote snarls in its pen at the A.E. Howell Wildlife Conservation Center in Amity. Scientists say the species became a coyote-wolf hybrid as it migrated east across Canada. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

Kays said the Eastern coyote has about 8 percent wolf DNA – and that percentage will increase over time. He cautions that the evolutionary process is not rapid, and that it could take another century for the Eastern coyote to look much different than it does today. But already, the coyote is considered a threat to the most vulnerable deer – and hunters offer anecdotal evidence that coyotes can take down even large, healthy deer.

Coyotes are not native to Maine, having arrived from the Western U.S. a century ago. Kays said the hybridization of coyotes and wolves occurred as coyotes migrated east across Canada and the Great Lakes region. Coyotes bred with wolves, resulting in the Eastern coyote, which is as much as 20 pounds heavier than coyotes found in the West. The Eastern coyote has a bigger skull and, more importantly, a wider jaw.

The Western coyote is generally between 20 to 25 pounds, while Eastern coyotes weigh between 30 to 40 pounds. Some have been documented in Maine at 50 pounds.

“Genetic evidence suggests it happened when the wolf population in the Great Lakes was at its lowest point when they were heavily persecuted. So basically some wolf female came into heat and couldn’t find a wolf so bred with the next best thing: a coyote,” Kays said.

“The skull is bigger and especially wider, and what’s interesting about that is that it gives them more room in their jaw muscles. They kill with their mouth so they can take down larger prey.”

There are an estimated 15,000 coyotes in Maine, according to Wally Jakubus, mammal leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Coyotes are found all over the state, including sightings in suburban and urban areas. They tend to hunt for small animals, such as snowshoe hare, mice, woodchucks, beavers, squirrels and birds. But coyotes are also scavengers, and will eat garbage, garden crops, livestock and poultry, and pet food left outside.

They’ll also hunt for deer, particularly in the winter when snow depths restrict the movements of the deer herd. The state has instituted aggressive measures to protect Maine’s deer population (estimated at about 200,000 since the early 1980s) from coyotes, including a year-round coyote hunt with no bag limit.

Posing with the forensic evidence of her research, Paula Work, curator of zoology at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, produced an exhibit that opened in March on the evolution of coyotes. “What I think is neat” about the Eastern coyote, the species in the Northeast, she says, “is the genetic plasticity, its ability – because of the introduction of the wolf gene – to eat everything the Western coyote eats, from rodents and vegetables all the way up to now being able to take down a young moose.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

KILLING DEER ‘IN ALL SHAPES AND SIZES’

Paula Work, curator of zoology at the Maine State Museum, said the Eastern coyote has colonized rapidly over the past half-century. There were an estimated 500 in Maine by the 1960s, said Work, who researched coyotes to produce an exhibit that opened in March on the species’ evolution.

“What I think is neat is the genetic plasticity, its ability – because of the introduction of the wolf gene – to eat everything the Western coyote eats, from rodents and vegetables all the way up to now being able to take down a young moose,” she said.

While Kays said the Eastern coyote still can’t yet kill the largest white-tailed deer, including bucks, Maine hunters disagree.

Registered Maine Guide Paul Laney, who hunts coyotes to help the deer herd in Washington County, said he’s seen coyote take down a buck.

“From what I see in the woods every day, these coyotes kill deer in all shapes and sizes,” said Laney, 41, of Grand Lake Stream. “I’ve seen them kill bucks in their prime with nothing wrong with them.”

Laney said since Maine hunters started five to 10 years ago putting a concerted effort into hunting coyotes near deer yards to help the white-tailed population, the deer are rebounding.

“We’re starting to see lambs in the big woods,” Laney said. “The coyotes live in the deer yards. They’re not there to eat chickadees, they’re there to kill deer. They’re certainly a hard animal to control.”

Steve Beckwith of Lebanon, a Registered Maine Guide who owns and operates a New England cable show on hunting, said coyotes are one of the most challenging animals to outwit. He also said it’s necessary to hunt them in Maine to help the deer herd, and it is helping.

“Coyote hunting has been helping Maine’s deer population to come back from the harsh winters back in 2008-2009 and even some of the winters since, including last winter in northern Maine,” said Beckwith, 56. “When Maine receives deep snow all the animals that coyotes prey on become vulnerable to coyote attacks. Without sportsmen there would be very few deer in Maine’s forest if coyotes were left unchecked by humans.”

CONCERN OVER MORE WOLFLIKE COYOTE

In Springfield, in far eastern Maine, at the local general store and tagging station, co-owner Aaron Smith said locals often see coyote kill large deer.

“We’ve got a wall of pictures of mature bucks killed by coyotes,” Smith said.

The Smith General Store has been holding an annual hunting contest to help thin the coyote population and protect the deer herd.

In the winter of 2009-2010, there were 84 coyotes tagged by hunters in the contest and 55 deer tagged the following fall. Two years later, in the winter of 2012, there were 119 coyotes tagged and 68 deer tagged the following fall. But after another two years, after about 90 coyotes were tagged each winter, hunters shot 136 coyotes in the contest of 2014-2015 and 141 deer were tagged at the store the following fall.

“It’s not rocket science,” Smith said. “If that coyote is not on his feet, he’s not going to kill deer. We are controlling the population of (coyotes) fairly well. If you don’t take a certain number, the population will explode right back to where it was.”

Smith isn’t worried about the evolution of the coyote. He said Maine’s coyotes are already very much like wolves.

“I don’t know that a purebred now would be any different,” he said. “They’re both killing machines.”

But Laney said the thought of coyotes becoming even more wolf-like is a concern.

“When you start talking about wolves, that makes me worry,” Laney said. “They kill moose and deer, people, dogs and anything they want. I know my father saw a coyote in the road in the late ’50s in western Maine and said, ‘What the hell is that?’ But from that point on, I don’t think coyotes have changed much in size from what I see.”

Correction: This story was updated at 12:49 p.m. on May 7 to remove an incorrect photo credit.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

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