Wolves or Fat Coyotes?

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I just saw a wolf! Last month a woman approached me while I was checking cameras in the canyon in San Mateo. She was certain she spotted a wolf while driving home late at night after a board meeting. He was running near one of the trail heads that lead deep into the canyon. Unfortunately, she was unable to take a picture—the animal was moving fast, she was driving and it was dark. But when she got home she did her homework, searched the internet, comparing images of coyotes with grey wolves. Google convinced her that the large canid who was illuminated by her headlights was a wolf. She’s not the only one who has recently told me that they think there are wolves in San Mateo County—two other people contacted me insisting they have seen wolves. These sightings are noteworthy because it’s been 200 years since a wolf was reported in the San Francisco Bay Area. What species of canid are people spotting? Are they seeing wolves or fat coyotes?

Are people seeing wolves or fat coyotes?

Wolf or fat coyote? Picture by Marilyn Krieger

Most of the alleged wolf sightings are not confirmed with photos and videos, but some are. A few people sent me pictures and my trail cameras snapped a series of excellent videos of one of these large canids.

Wolf reports

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who has been contacted about “wolves” roaming the bay area. I checked with Jonathan Young, the wildlife ecologist, at the Presidio Trust in San Francisco who specializes in coyotes and Kent Laudon, the Senior Environmental Scientist, wolf specialist for the California Dept of Fish and Wildlife. Both scientists told me they’ve received reports of sightings of wolves and giant coyotes. Young wrote me that he’s gotten calls and e-mails from locals, claiming that there are wolves and German shepherd sized coyotes in the city that weight at least 100lbs. One San Franciscan wrote him “it was certainly a wolf that I saw, believe me, I have a vacation cabin in Montana, I know wolves.” Despite these reports, Young said that coyotes are surprisingly light-weight. A few years ago he weighed a female who tipped the scale at 34 pounds. Although there aren’t many pictures accompanying the wolf and giant coyote claims, someone in SF posted a picture of one on the Nextdoor social media platform, titling it the Wolf of McLaren Park.

The wolf of McLaren Park. Are people seeing wolves or fat coyotes?

Wolf or fat coyote?—photographer prefers to remain anonymous

Remember the woman on her way home from the board meeting who told me that she saw a wolf disappearing into the canyon? Fortunately, he and his mate trotted by my trail cameras, triggering a series of videos. He looks out of place next to his mate, who is a typical-looking, lanky, leggy coyote. He’s large, solid and kind of fat—she is diminutive in comparison to him. He could easily be mistaken for a large German shepherd or a wolf or a hybrid until you see his face and snout.

People from all over California contact Laudon, claiming they’ve seen wolves. He always checks the reports and has found that 99% of the sightings are not wolves—they’re coyotes or dogs. But, what about the other 1%?

99% of the sightings are not wolves—they’re coyotes or dogs.

99% of the sightings are not wolves—they’re coyotes or dogs. Picture courtesy of Kent Laudon

Wolves in California

Grey wolves are historically native to California—they lived here until they were hunted to extinction for sport and to control predation. The last known grey wolf in California was trapped and killed in Lassen County in 1924. Lassen County is a long way from San Mateo County. Did wolves live in the bay area? It is believed that they once were here. Based on anecdotal evidence from explorers in the 1800s, wolves inhabited the coastal ranges, the central valley and the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Grey Wolf

Wolf. Photo by Patrice Schoefolt from Pexels

There hadn’t been wolf sightings in California for almost 100 years. That changed in 2011, when a wolf, fitted with a radio collar and named OR-7 dispersed from his natal pack in northeastern Oregon into our state. He was the first known wolf to venture into California, travelling as far south as Tehama, Shasta, and Butte Counties.

Since 2011 there have been a handful of other wolves who have gone on walkabouts into California, seeking mates, traveling thousands of miles in pursuit of love. A recent and well-publicized traveler was OR-93, he was the first wolf in 200 years to be seen as far south as San Luis Obispo and Ventura Counties. His impressive 1,000 mile journey ended tragically on November 10, 2021, when he was killed by a car on Interstate Highway 5.

OR-93 traveled down to the central coast.

OR-93 traveled down to the central coast. Photo courtesy of Kent Laudon, California Fish & Wildlife

Although wolves are gradually dispersing back into California, they have not made it to the Bay Area and they probably won’t. According to Laudon, they are forced to make a hard stop at the highways, notably I5 and I80.

Hybrids? Wolves or Fat Coyotes?

Is it possible that our local, oversized, super coyotes are hybrids? Did over-amorous dogs and coyotes have liaisons? Laudon says that there is no DNA evidence of hybridization occurring in the West between dogs and coyotes or between wolves and coyotes. Additionally, wolf and coyote encounters do not bode well for coyotes. Wolves do not tolerate coyotes—they kill them. It’s in the best interests of coyotes to avoid wolves1.

Fat coyotes in winter coats

Wolves, coydogs or coywolves have not moved into the neighborhoods. The huskier, solid-looking canids that people are seeing are our familiar coyotes—they are well nourished and have grown thick insulating winter coats. One theory about why our coyotes are looking larger than their usual svelte, lean selves could be weather/temperature related. California has been in a drought for years. Until this winter, the coyotes that cruise the neighborhoods have been lank and leggy. It’s been a long time since coyotes have been seen with thick winter coats. This year is different—California has been drenched with rain and it’s cold. Laudon also thinks that there’s a psychological component to the sightings, that people wanting to see wolves, mis-identify the well-padded coyotes as wolves.

Local coyotes have become accustomed to sharing the neighborhoods with humans. Although they typically avoid people, they are sometimes spotted during the day, trotting down the street, looking for food and mates. It is easy for them to find nourishing food in our urban and suburban environments. Coyotes are efficient ratters, but being opportunistic eaters, they also eat garbage, fruit, dog food, cat food and unfortunately, they can target dogs and cats2. It’s common to see coyotes in the neighborhoods—most look well nourished and they’re sporting thick, insulating winter coats3.

  1. It’s a different story for the eastern coyote. Javier Monzon, an evolutionary biologist analyzed the DNA of 437 eastern coyotes and found that 64% of the eastern coyote’s genome is coyote (Canis latrans), 13% gray wolf (Canis lupus), 13% Eastern wolf (Canis lycaon), and 10% dog (Canis familiaris).
  2. Living on the on the wildland-urban interface in the Bay Area means that residents need to expect that coyotes and other native wildlife will periodically be seen in our neighborhoods. Take proper measures to protect your pets and hobby animals. Keep your pets safe indoors. When walking dogs, walk them on a leash. Cats should not be allowed outside—the exceptions are enclosures and catios.
  3. Thank you Zara McDonald for fact checking and proofing. Thank you Kent Laudon and Jonathan Young for answering my incessant questions and for fact checking. 

Marilyn is a certified cat behavior consultant (The Cat Coach, LLC) and author Not surprisingly, she’s fascinated by feline behaviors. This started with household cats and then after witnessing a puma being killed a few blocks from her home in the suburbs, expanded to include local mountain lions and bobcats. A few years after the tragedy, she joined the Bay Area Puma Project/Felidae Conservation Fund, maintaining trail cameras, writing and helping wherever she can. Her focus is on how urbanization is affecting apex predators’ behaviors.

Join Marilyn for lively discussions about all things feline on her Facebook page: The Cat Coach.

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