Animal jam. Cars were lined up on the side of the road, gawkers hanging out windows snapping pictures.
As often happens when visitors explore Yellowstone National Park, this is the tell-tale sign of a rare beast sighting, even though half the time when drivers pull over they shout, “What is it?”
The animal made its way down a hill, nose to the ground and then darted between cars, crossed the road and began running up another hill.
By chance, Game and Fish Cody regional wildlife coordinator Corey Class was one of the viewers in a vehicle.
This is what he thought: “A hundred people are going to go home and tell their friends they saw a wolf.”
Only this was a coyote. Granted, a good-sized one that to the uninitiated could pass for a young wolf.
This was certainly not the first time the two animals would be confused in the Park, nor the last. But Class offered tips to explain how to tell wolves and coyotes apart.
“A ton of things,” Class said. “There’s the size.”
An adult male wolf can easily weigh 100 pounds. An adult male coyote can weigh 45 pounds.
The behavior exhibited by this coyote was also a hint, Class said.
As the animal roamed, it seemed to have its eye on mice or some other such small appetizer, pouncing when it spotted something.
“Wolves typically go for bigger meals,” Class said.
Other physical traits are obvious to the pros.
“They (wolves) have bigger, broader muzzles,” Class said.
And then there are the feet. Someone like Class who does this for a living, will direct his attention to foot size, something the casual watcher might never do since they may be so enthralled they are seeing any type of wild critter.
When it comes to wolf versus coyote feet, it might be akin to Shaquille O’Neal’s sneaker size measured against a junior high basketball player’s sneaker size. In other words, the contrast is no contest.
“You’ve got to be looking for it,” Class said.
That may be a more subtle challenge on the fly, but even from a distance, Class said, a glance at the animal’s head should reveal all.
Wolves, he said, “have more rounded heads. They have a bigger, broader muzzle. The thing that cued me was its face.”
Even those half in the know would like to rationalize that the animal was a wolf by suggesting maybe it was a young wolf, not fully grown.
Uh, uh, Class said.
“Even a yearling wolf is a good-sized animal,” Class said. “It’s probably 70 pounds. If you’ve seen enough wolves and seen enough coyotes, you know right away.”
Then there’s the psychological aspect. A Yellowstone spectator will almost surely be rooting for the animal to be a wolf because they are rarer and more exotic. They WANT what they see to be a wolf.
Dan Smith, Game and Fish Cody regional office supervisor, laughed about Class’ comment of those visitors probably boasting they saw a wolf.
“Those 100 people probably never saw a coyote either,” he said.