A Michigan Hunter Thought He Killed a Large Coyote. It Turned Out to Be an Endangered Gray Wolf

Wildlife officials believe the animal was likely the first gray wolf spotted in the southern Lower Peninsula in 100 years

Gray wolf lounging in a field
Gray wolves are typically much larger than coyotes. USFWS

In January, a hunter shot and killed what he thought was a large coyote in southwest Michigan. Now, however, genetic testing has revealed that the animal was actually an endangered gray wolf—the first member of the species spotted in the region in at least a century, reports MLive.com’s Brad Devereaux.

It’s not clear how or why the animal ended up so far south. Michigan does have an established gray wolf (Canis lupus) population, but the creatures are located hundreds of miles away on the state’s Upper Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula are separated by Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, with only the Mackinac Bridge connecting them.

Wildlife officials are still scratching their heads about the wolf’s presence in Calhoun County, which is located about 115 miles west of Detroit. But they say they have no reason to believe that gray wolves are establishing a population on the Lower Peninsula.

“How did it get here?” Brian Roell, a biologist and large carnivore specialist for Michigan's Department of Natural Resources (DNR), tells MLive.com, adding that the interloper was likely “just a one-off kind of thing.”

Wolves are occasionally spotted in the northern Lower Peninsula—including most recently in 2014, when biologists with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians saw a wolf on a trail camera and later confirmed its presence by analyzing DNA from its scat. But the animals haven’t been seen in the southern Lower Peninsula “since the likely extirpation of wolves from the state in the early part of the 20th century,” per a statement from the DNR.

GPS collars have shown that wolves sometimes travel thousands of miles, roaming far outside their home territory.

"They don't have a map," says Shawn Riley, an emeritus professor of fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University, to the Detroit News’ Carol Thompson and Charles E. Ramirez. "They're just following their senses, so they can end up in all kinds of situations."

The wolf may have walked to the southern Lower Peninsula on its own. But it’s also possible that “it had some help getting there,” Roell tells the Detroit News.

Meanwhile, the hunter’s killing of the animal is under investigation. Gray wolves are protected throughout most of the United States, including in Michigan, under the Endangered Species Act. The federal law prohibits the “taking” of protected wildlife, an umbrella term that includes killing, capturing, harassing, shooting, wounding and other types of conduct that might harm the animal.

Investigators are looking into the circumstances surrounding the gray wolf’s death. The hunter was accompanied by a guide on a legal coyote hunt at the time of the incident, and he reported the kill to wildlife officials.

DNR staffers analyzed and weighed the animal’s carcass. The creature was much larger than a coyote: It weighed 84 pounds, whereas coyotes typically weigh between 25 and 40 pounds, per the statement. Genetic testing also confirmed it to be a gray wolf.

To the untrained eye, coyotes and wolves look a lot alike. However, coyotes typically have slimmer builds, narrower snouts and smaller paws than wolves; their ears also seem proportionately larger and pointier.

In addition to these distinguishing physical characteristics, coyotes are more widespread and can live in a wide array of different habitats. They’re much more likely to be seen in areas occupied by humans, whereas wolves typically try to steer clear of human activity.

An estimated 631 wolves live on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, according to the latest count. A small population is also making a comeback at nearby Isle Royale National Park, an archipelago in northwestern Lake Superior.

Wolves used to roam freely throughout Michigan. However, after the arrival of European settlers, their numbers began to dwindle because of hunting and habitat destruction, according to the International Wolf Center. A bounty was established in 1838 and, by 1910, gray wolves had disappeared from the Lower Peninsula.

In the Upper Peninsula, meanwhile, gray wolf numbers also declined—dropping to as low as one individual in 1959. The state repealed the bounty in 1960 and, five years later, “granted the wolf full protection by law,” according to the International Wolf Center. The animals received federal protection in 1974.

Wolves have been reintroduced in several states and regions in recent decades, including Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and, more recently, Colorado in December 2023. Their reintroduction is often controversial, pitting ranchers against conservationists.

More broadly, the federal protection of gray wolves has also been a source of debate. In late 2020, gray wolves were taken off the federal endangered list. Fifteen months later, in February 2022, they were re-listed in most of the lower 48 states.

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