The grey wolf (Canis lupus) and coyote (C. latrans) are highly mobile carnivores that disperse over great distances in search of territories and mates. Previous genetic studies have shown little geographical structure in either species. However, population genetic structure is also influenced by past isolation events and population fluctuations during glacial periods. In this study, control region sequence data from a worldwide sample of grey wolves and a more limited sample of coyotes were analysed. The results suggest that fluctuating population sizes during the late Pleistocene have left a genetic signature on levels of variation in both species. Genealogical measures of nucleotide diversity suggest that historical population sizes were much larger in both species and grey wolves were more numerous than coyotes. Currently, about 300 000 wolves and 7 million coyotes exist. In grey wolves, genetic diversity is greater than that predicted from census population size, reflecting recent historical population declines. By contrast, nucleotide diversity in coyotes is smaller than that predicted by census population size, reflecting a recent population expansion following the extirpation of wolves from much of North America. Both species show little partitioning of haplotypes on continental or regional scales. However, a statistical parsimony analysis indicates local genetic structure that suggests recent restricted gene flow.