Rethinking Tennessee’s Prairie Wolf

We think it’s way past time to rethink how people view coyotes in the Southeast. Often maligned and viewed as an invasive nuisance, they’re actually a critical part of our ecosystem just like their closely related predecessors, the red wolves.

It’s nothing new for a closely related animal to fill in the gaps left when one animal becomes extirpated (locally extinct). A local example: after elk were completely eliminated from the Southeast in the 1800s, conservationists introduced a Canadian subspecies in 2000. Our herds of elk aren’t exactly the same as those that once lived here, but they are behaviorally, physically, and ecologically similar and are respected for their role in the local web of life.

Coyotes, too, are in many ways nearly identical to red wolves, who used to naturally live all over the South. Red wolves and Southeastern coyotes are similar in size, diet, appearance, communication, and behavior, and are close relatives.

The two cousin species may have shared common ancestors as recently as the 10,000 years ago— the blink of an eye, on an ecological scale. It wasn’t until the end of the last ice age that these relatives separated, with coyotes settling on one side of the Mississippi, and red wolves forming their own population on the other.

It’s because of this close relationship that we’d like to bring back an older name for the coyote: “prairie wolf.” A coyote is much more closely related to a red wolf than an Ethiopian wolf is related to an arctic wolf, yet it’s been given a name that implies that it’s entirely different. While the name “coyote” conjures images of scrappy pests, the world is starting to appreciate wolves, and maybe can one day appreciate the prairie wolf as much as its cousins.

Nature has an amazing way of filling gaps, and after humanity destroyed the wolves that kept our ecosystem stable, the land thirsted for them. We experienced unsustainable explosions of rats, mice, rabbits, deer, and raccoons, and we saw traffic accidents, loss of forests, and outbreaks of diseases as a result.

Coyotes, being a bit more adaptable than their cousins, moved back to the East and bred with feral dogs and the last of our wild wolves, creating the familiar animals we know now. They’re not a nuisance, but part of the fabric that holds our natural world in balance.

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