Coyote sightings have increased dramatically in Pasco, Pinellas, and Hillsborough counties in the last decade, but there is confusion about what animal, exactly, people are seeing.
There are four possibilities:
* The iconic balsa-boned songdog of the American West, usually tawny-brown solitary scavengers that rarely weigh more than 30 pounds.
* "Coydogs," a one-generation hybrid, often sterile, of assorted colors and sizes that will "pack up" with other feral dogs. They are often the first indication that there are coyotes in an area, but rarely den with true coyotes.
* The Eastern coyote, a pack-hunter of assorted colors that often resemble German Shepherds, can weigh up to 80 pounds, and, some biologists contend, is a hybridized wolf that has been migrating south from northern Ontario for more than a century.
* A combination of the three.
Most state biologists, local animal control officials, and professional trappers say the vast majority of coyotes seen in Pasco, Pinellas, and Hillsborough counties are the typical western coyote.
"Most of what I see are more of the natural type," said trapper David Robert Lueck of St. Petersburg. "I don't see a whole lot of the hybridized type."
"Everything down south will be your small, slinky coyote type," said Tim Smith, regional manager for Animal Action Trappers in St. Petersburg. "There are larger coyotes in northern part of the state - 80-90 pounders that look like German Shepherds. But, they're not this far south."
"Ninety-nine out of 100 are the smaller strain," said trapper Michael Perez, of HHS Land Management in Land O' Lakes, "but we've got some (Eastern coyote) packs active in Pasco."
A Wisconsin native who grew up hunting Eastern coyote, Perez knows one when he sees one.
"Oh yeah," he said. "I've seen a few pushing 80 pounds" near the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Area in New Port Richey.
Clearwater Air Park general manager Barbara Cooper is "absolutely" convinced that the coyotes haunting the airport's hangars and runways are not typical coyotes.
"These look like big dogs - on the German Shepherd-looking side," she said, adding there's something else she's noticed: "They travel together, four at a time."
That's an important distinction because coyotes are solitary hunters while wolves hunt in packs.
The behavioral link between Eastern coyotes and wolves was genetically confirmed by a State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry study in 2002, and then again in 2004 in a joint University of Maine/Cornell University study.
The conclusion of both studies: The Eastern coyote is a hybridized wolf.
Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Southwest Region office in Lakeland, said many FWC biologists are skeptical of those studies.
Even if it were possible for coyotes and wolves to inter-breed and produce a super-predator ideally adapted to urban and suburban environments, he said, that's not what people are seeing in Pasco, Pinellas, and Hillsborough counties.
"When you see the bigger dogs, you're seeing coyote-dog hybrids - 'coydogs,'" he said.
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