Are wolves hunting and howling again in the northeast woods, more than a century after they were eradicated from the region?
Proponents who believe so say recent DNA analysis shows a burly dog shot by a coyote hunter in upstate New York last winter was actually a wolf. They believe there are other wolves in New York and New England, saying they could cross the frozen St. Lawrence River heading south from Canada. And they want the government to protect them.
“There must be other wolves here,” said John Glowa, president of the Maine Wolf Coalition. “We have no doubt that Eastern Wolves descend and cross the St. Lawrence. And they are killed. And we call them coyotes.
Not everyone is convinced.
The test results are the latest entry in a long-running disagreement in the North East over the presence of a charismatic wild animal dogged by a reputation as the big bad villain in children’s stories and a livestock poacher for farmers. It’s a surprisingly complicated question, in part because eastern coyotes typically share genetic material with wolves.
“The question is: what is a wolf? And it’s not as simple as it looks,” said Daniel Rosenblatt, a wildlife biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
Critics say wildlife officials are slow to recognize wolves among them because they would have to adapt to the presence of a federally protected species.
State wildlife officials say there is no evidence that wild wolves have re-established themselves in the area, although some admit the possibility of scattered lone wolves. They don’t show up on trail cameras, they say. Maine Wildlife Division Director Nate Webb said if wolves were back in numbers in his state, they would prey on moose.
“I’ve worked with wolves for over a decade and personally witnessed hundreds of wolves being killed. And it’s pretty, pretty easy to tell when a moose has been killed by wolves,” said Webb.”And that just doesn’t happen here in Maine.”
Wolves were effectively shot, trapped, and poisoned out of the northeast in the early 20th century, leaving a void for coyotes to fill. Smaller than wolves with pointier muzzles and ears, eastern coyotes are now common in the region.
But it’s not unusual for people in the Northeast to report canines apparently too big and bulky to be coyotes, which typically weigh around 40 pounds.
In New York’s Adirondack Mountains, wolf advocate Joseph Butera said friends and neighbors had seen animals larger than German Shepherds and he constantly saw large canine tracks in the woods.
“And once in a blue moon, you’ll hear a howl that you know isn’t a coyote,” said Butera, president of the Northeast Ecological Recovery Society.
Wolf sightings can be dismissed as people misidentifying coyotes, pets, or wolf-dog hybrids.
But a 2011 academic study using carbon isotopes to distinguish wild wolves from captive wolves suggested that at least three wild wolves lived in Vermont and New York during the previous decade.
Glowa, citing DNA analysis and other evidence, said at least half a dozen wolves were killed in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine from 1993 to 2007. He believes those cases likely represent a fraction Northeastern wolves.
Proponents note that wolves can travel hundreds of miles, and wolf populations have already rebounded around the Great Lakes and further west.
Some canine researchers say it’s unclear if there are any sustained populations in the northeast, but it seems likely that wolves roam the area.
“In all honesty, I don’t know how there can’t be, just based on the biology that causes canines to scatter incredible distances. By pure fact, why wouldn’t there be? Unless they’re still being hunted,” said Bridgett vonHoldt, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University.
In the case of the recent New York animal, Glowa said he was made aware of photos posted online by a hunter with his kill this winter west of Albany, about 150 miles south of the border. Canadian. The hunter agreed to provide a tissue sample from the 85-pound animal to the attorneys. Laboratory analysis showed predominantly wolf ancestry, with a very small amount of coyote genetic material.
However, New York environmental officials say a separate DNA analysis they commissioned determined the animal was most closely identified as an eastern coyote. The conclusion was based in part on maternal DNA markers, although analysis found ample evidence of wolf genetic material.
VonHoldt, head of the North American Canine Ancestry Project, said both tests relied on a limited amount of genetic data. In his opinion, it was not possible to conclude that the animal was a coyote or a wolf without more data.
The Princeton lab is performing additional tests on samples from the animal.
The problem that any genetic analyst must face is the blurred line between wolves and eastern coyotes. Researchers believe coyotes heading east over the Great Lakes bred with wolves. The result is that eastern coyotes are somewhat more muscular than western ones. Some people even use the term “coywolves”.
“Where do you draw the line between the two? asked New Hampshire Fish and Game Department wildlife biologist Patrick Tate. “How much wolf DNA do you need before it’s a wild wolf?” How much coyote DNA do you need before it’s a coyote? »
Rosenblatt said New York is not only retesting this animal, but also trying to collect more genetic data on coyotes so they have a better idea of the composition of canids in general in the woods.
“We know this issue is not going away,” he said.