Wolf or Coyote?

Have you ever seen a wolf in Yosemite National Park? The canine creature with the bushy tail you saw on the side of the road or trotting along the trail was not a wolf – it was a coyote. Though gray wolves once ranged throughout the continent, it is uncertain whether they ever lived in the area of the Sierra Nevada that is now designated as Yosemite National Park. The California range of the gray wolf in historic times is poorly understood, and there are currently no wolves living in the state, despite the visits of Oregon wolf OR7 who wandered into California from Oregon for a short period of time in the winter of 2011. Mountain coyotes, on the other hand, live all over California and thrive in Yosemite National Park.


Illustration from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

What is the difference between a wolf and a coyote? Canids share many common dog-like characteristics, but wolves and coyotes differ in a number of ways, starting with their overall size. Wolves are much larger than coyotes and if you ever have the good fortune to spot a wolf in the wild, you will never mistake a coyote for a wolf again. Wolves can be up to six feet long versus coyotes’ average length of four feet. Wolves also stand almost three feet at the shoulder while coyotes only measure around a foot and a half. Wolves have rounded ears and a squared muzzle, while coyotes have distinctive pointed ears and muzzle. Though wolves today are found in very few places in the United States, coyotes are common in developed areas and can become comfortable surrounded by the everyday activities of humans. Please remember to respect the nature of this wild animal and do not feed any coyote that approaches you in Yosemite or anywhere else. Keep a respectful distance from any wildlife in the park and enjoy sighting these magnificent creatures in this beautiful natural setting.



10 comments on “Wolf or Coyote?

  1. Have seen many coyotes all over the US, but distinctly observed much taller and larger canines in the Tuolumne/Tenaya areas last winter 2012 while on the Tioga Road MLK day before closing. Larger size and grey color left me thinking they were wolves who stayed up in the high alpine areas away from people.


    • me, too. Very similar experiences (and I feel like I know very well what a coyote looks like – I’m old now… and have been around coyotes in the Sierras & foothills since I was a child. One I saw was near Edison Lake. Another in Yosemite Park off Hwy 41. But this was in the ’70s-’80s, so just assumed I was maybe just seeing a really big coyote, having been told there were no wolves in California. Now, I wonder.


  2. Yosemite coyotes do seem to be a particularly robust and majestic sample of the breed, and that often leads people to the same conclusion that you came to – even the coyotes often seen in Yosemite Valley. Wolves are even bigger than that! And the facial features are pretty distinctive. It is exciting to be able to share the park with them.


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  4. I’ve seen Yosemite coyotes and they certainly seem to be larger than the coyotes we have here in Shasta County. I do not believe wolves are presently in Yosemite but I suspect they historically were, and will be again.

    The only reason we knew OR7 entered Cali is because of his collar, but most Oregon wolves don’t have one. Given that at least two other wolves (including OR7’s mate) ended up in south-western Oregon without collars, it seems fairly evident that dispersal to south-western Oregon is now a somewhat common occurrence and it would not surprise me if at least one other wolf has also entered California just like OR7 did.

    OR7 went down into the Sierra Nevada mountains before returning, so that is a route they will take, and I’m guessing within a decade there will be more than one breeding pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains and eventually become established in Yosemite.

    Yosemite is special to me, that’s where (in 1972) I was conceived 😀

    Wolves returning to California, we live in very exciting times.


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  6. Michael, I think I saw the same one, but right when the park opened after the huge snow season. This was not a coyote, way too big with different facial features. Grey in color with the lope of a wolf. I had seen coyotes in the park previously, and this was different.

    I had gone to hike the JMT, but the snow was too deep so I got my permits and did 3-4 day loops of the park followed by a night in backpackers camp. On my second loop, I camped near Tuolumne.

    I was packing up my tent in the morning to hike out when I looked up. Less than 50 yards away and running across the meadow was a wolf, large in stature and grey in color. I swear it looked at me as it ran across the meadow, as I observed it for at least 15 seconds. At no time did I feel threatened or afraid. There was something in the expression on its face that put me at ease and let me just enjoy the privilege of seeing an apex predator roaming a new range.

    I was absolutely awe struck that I had just seen a wolf. I stood there a few minutes and went back to packing my gear. Then, I noticed many tracks within inches from my tent. It had been there the night before and meant me no harm. I was a little freaked at first, but thought of it as a check in from a fellow brother/sister of the wilderness.

    This experience has only deepened my admiration of this animal, and my desire to help protect it.


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