Be Coyote Wise

Courtesy of WDFW “Crossings Paths” Newsletter, February 2015

It’s good to be wise about wildlife year round to avoid problems, but it’s especially important at this time of year to be “coyote wise”.

Coyotes, which are abundant throughout Washington’s rural and urban areas, are paring up and breeding now in late winter to produce pups in April and early May. And coyotes that were born eight or nine months ago are striking out on their own at this time. That means there’s lots of coyotes moving about and making noise, yipping and howling to communicate with each other.

Like most wildlife, coyotes usually avoid people and don’t cause trouble. But coyotes are extremely opportunistic and adaptable to our ways and will take advantage of easy access to food sources. As a canine species, they also view domestic dogs as competitors. These two factors can lead to problems with coyotes now and through summer as young are reared.

Finding food is critical for all wildlife. But mature animals that are reproducing, and young animals that are learning independence, are really driven to feed.

Coyotes are actually omnivores – they’ll eat everything from fruit to large animals. Hungry coyotes will try almost anything.

NEVER intentionally feed coyotes. And think about how you might be unintentionally providing access to food, like unsecured garbage, uncovered compost piles, spilled seed from backyard bird feeders, pet food left outdoors, or even small pets like cats or toy breed dogs left to roam, especially from dusk to dawn.

Don’t feed feral cats (domestic cats gone wild). Coyotes prey on these cats as well as any feed you leave out for the feral cats.

If a coyote finds an easy food source close to people, it can easily become habituated, or so accustomed to people that it becomes abnormally bold. Coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare. Only two such attacks have been documented in Washington – in 2006 a habituated coyote bit two young children in Bellevue and was later euthanized.

Finding mates and producing and rearing young can make adult coyotes more territorial and less tolerant of free-running domestic dogs. Learning how to make a living in the world, independent of a family unit, can make juvenile non-breeding coyotes more competitive with free-ranging dogs.

Avoid running dogs off-leash in areas where you have heard or seen coyotes, especially now through May. Coyotes might aggressively confront dogs running through their denning area, and some dogs are just as likely to curiously sniff out coyotes and end up in nasty encounters.

Coyotes carry parasites and canine diseases, like distemper and parvovirus, that are rarely a risk to humans but could be deadly for domestic dogs. Be sure to keep dogs current on vaccinations and consult your veterinarian if you know of or even suspect a coyote encounter.

More information on becoming “coyote wise” is available at

Coyote Conundrum: Rebranding the ‘Cat Consumer’

By Jordan Schaul, Associate Conservation Biologist, WWO

Coyote howling near Jasper, Alberta

coyote photo:  Darrell Smith, WWO photographer/Project Biologist


As gray wolves return to the lower 48 States after an absence of 100 years, many champions have rallied to their cause. Except for Minnesota, all gray wolf subspecies were federally listed as endangered in the lower 48 states as long ago as 1978. In the mid-1990’s federal efforts were initiated to restore wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho, which became conservation success stories for the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other federal and state agencies.

During the wolf’s prolonged absence, his smaller cousin, the coyote greatly expanded its range due to the extermination of gray wolves and because coyotes tend to adapt so readily to the presence of humans in both rural and urban settings. According to the IUCN, the coyote, a species listed under the conservation-sensitive category of Least Concern was “believed to have been restricted to the south-west and plains regions of the U.S. and Canada, and northern and central Mexico, prior to European settlement (Moore and Parker 1992).” Today, coyotes have successful populated every state in the US and many Canadian provinces. While the gray wolf is possibly the most studied wild carnivore on the planet, and certainly the most studied canid, the coyote remains largely misunderstood and unappreciated and certainly understudied relative to its numbers.  Yet the coyote is the canid who lives among us.

The wolf,was once universally hated and ultimately extirpated from much of its historic range out of wide-spread fear for human safety and loss of livestock. However, The wolf today, an iconic carnivore of the West, much like the grizzly bear has assumed a symbolic role as an indicator species of wildness and intact ecosystems and draws particular attention to a growing demographic of environmentalists. However, the same audience has not demanded that the same scientific principles of wildlife management be applied to coyotes. Is it time to rebrand their image?  Efforts to rebrand other victimized species of wild canids, like African wild dogs, which, like the coyote, have largely been regarded as vermin, have met with some success.

Although data suggests that coyotes are frequently not the culprits responsible for losses to the companion pet population, the reputation of coyotes precedes them.  A 2009 study by Grubbs and Krausman suggested that coyotes are “cat killers” and unfortunately the media has successfully blown this notion out of proportion to the great detriment of this valuable meso-predator.

Although coyotes are known to take feral cats and house cats permitted out of doors, (bad for cats and native birds alike) the interpretation of the study was a bit shortsighted. Not only was the sample size of radio-collared coyotes in the study, very small, but in close critique it would appear that consuming cats was a learned specialty of certain individuals and it is not a behavior common to coyotes, which are skilled opportunists capable of preying on a vast array of small wild mammals and other vertebrate species.  Hence, it is not the affinity for cats that have drawn coyotes into suburbia, but rather their role as uber-opportunists that make them so adept at living just about anywhere. Although many coyotes occupy home ranges of many square miles and incorporate forest- lands or preserves, other coyotes have been documented to make use of broken patches of habitat intercepted by roads and other human structures. They have proven exceptionally good at finding small openings and corridors, which allow them to navigate around human habitations, rarely detected.

Perhaps its time for more focus to be placed on the ecological services they provide: the ability to control populations of small mammals inside and beyond urban areas, especially at a time when resources of animal control and wildlife agencies are so few and far between and when the poisons in commonly-used rodenticides are coming increasingly under fire for their long-term damage to humans, wildlife, pets and the environment.

Many North American Tribes respected “Coyote” as the great teacher, admired for a great ability to adapt, to live as a generalist, to out-smart humans, to protect and raise pups in the context of a larger family unit, and for tolerance of the proximity of humans. Coyote is a survivor. Coyotes fills an important ecological niche in rural, urban and suburban settings alike and should be recognized for the important role they play in controlling true human pests, like species of rats and mice introduced from Asia and Europe which are especially prolific around and in human-occupied areas and can be vectors for human diseases.

Want to know more about coyotes in suburbia? We recommend the book, Suburban Howls by eminent coyote researcher Dr. Johnathan Way, or Hope Ryden’s classic, God’s Dog.  Also, watch for “Coexisting with Coyote—Tips for Avoiding Conflicts” in an upcoming blog on this page.

Signs of Wolves

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Wolf Tracks

Wolf track
Wolf track

Track Comparison

Because wolves are elusive and are rarely seen, finding their tracks can be an exciting experience. The charts and information below illustrate some of the characteristics that distinguish wolf tracks from those of their close relatives, coyotes and domestic dogs. Each species has four symmetrical toes on the front and hind feet, with the front track slightly longer and broader than the hind. Claw marks are usually evident and the front of a wolf’s foot pad is single-lobed. The differences are not always clear so look for a combination of characteristics before coming to a conclusion.

Relative track size differences in wolves, domestic dogs, and coyotes:

Track size measurements (NOT including claw marks):

Wolves Compared to Coyotes

Adult wolf tracks are larger and more robust than adult coyote tracks. Young wolves’ feet grow large very quickly, and by the time they are about three months old (around July) even young wolves’ tracks are larger than most coyote tracks. Because wolves are much heavier animals than coyotes their tracks will show some spread in their toes, especially on the front track, more often than those of coyotes. In wolves, claws on the front feet are longer than the hind but generally register distinctly in both.

Wolves Compared to Domestic Dogs

Wolf tracks are larger than those of all but the largest breeds of domestic dogs, the genetic descendents of wolves. While many dog tracks can be easily distinguished from wolf tracks, some domestic dogs have tracks that are very similar to wolves, making them indistinguishable in some instances. Use the guidelines below to help in track identification. However, keep in mind that tracks alone cannot distinguish domestic dogs from wild canids with complete certainty.

Toes and Claws

Large dogs often spread their toes with all four toes radiating outward. Spread is less common in wolves and, if it exists, usually only the outer two toes spread. Wolves’ front claws are longer and more strongly apparent in tracks than the hind claws, but can appear distinctly in both. The appearance of claws in dog tracks is variable.

Track Size

The front feet of domestic dogs often have a round appearance with the length and width similar in size. Wolves’ front feet are often more rectangular in overall shape, longer than wide, unless the outer toes have spread. Track size of domestic dogs is highly variable but most dogs leave tracks that are less than 3.5 in. (9 cm) in length, where wolves’ tracks are 3.5 in. (9 cm) and above. Only a few breeds of dogs such as Great Danes, St. Bernard’s and Blood Hounds leave tracks longer than 4 inches. The tracks of German Shepherds, Malamutes, Retrievers and Setters are usually less than 4 inches long.

Wolves Compared to Cougars

Cougar tracks are often confused with wolf tracks. Distinguishing features of a mountain lion track are its roundness, the shape of the planter pad (main foot pad) and asymmetry of both the foot and the individual toes.

Because cats have retractable claws, mountain lion tracks do not usually show claw marks. This is not always true, however, as cougars sometimes use their claws to increase traction on steep or slippery terrain. Claw marks may also be present if the animal is traveling fast. If claw marks are visible, they will be directly joined to the toe, while the wolf track exhibits a 1/4-inch separation between claw and toe.

Appearance of nearby scats and proximity to people should be considered when large canid tracks are encountered. In some remote areas, large canid tracks may result from the practice of using hounds to hunt mountain lions.

Wolf Scats

Wolves produce scats, or droppings, which are usually composed of hair, bone fragments, and other signs of their carnivorous diet. Coyote scats, often smaller than wolf scats, typically contain small mammal remains, berries, or insects, but there can be some overlap in contents and appearance. Domestic dog scats are generally more uniform in texture and shape without noticeable hair or bone fragments. Never touch scats to avoid contracting parasites.

Wolf Scats

  • long and tubular – often strong in smell
  • range from 1 to 1.5 inches (2.45-4 cm) in diameter

Coyote Scats

  • twisted and irregular
  • range from .5 to 1.25 inches (1.5-3 cm) in diameter

Wolves often prey on large animals such as deer and elk. They have very powerful jaws so look for characteristic feeding signs of bone fragments and cracked bones near a carcass. Wolves as well as scavengers will eventually drag off parts of the carcass. Burying an entire carcass is a practice typical of cougars and occasionally bears, but NOT of wolves. If you find a carcass move away from it – bears may take control of a carcass and can be very aggressive.

Please report suspected wolf and wolf track sightings to the Washington Wolf Reporting Hotline at 1-888-584-9038.  
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Poaching Hotline 1-877-933-9847

Visit the Products page to see our Identifying Washington’s Wolves brochure.