Howling Wolf? Debate on the presence of wolves in the Northeast

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Are wolves hunting and howling again in the forests of the Northeast, more than a century after they were driven from the region?

Proponents who think so say recent DNA analysis shows that a stocky canine 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 and say they could be crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River as they headed south from Canada. And they want the government to protect them.

“There have to be other wolves here,” said John Glowa, president of the Maine Wolf Coalition. “We have no doubt that the wolves from the east are coming down and across the St. Lawrence. And they are being killed. And they are called coyotes.”

Not everyone is convinced.

The test results are the latest entry in a long-running disagreement in the Northeast over the presence of a charismatic wild animal haunted by a reputation as a big bad villain in children’s stories and as a cattle poacher for farmers. It’s a surprisingly complicated question, in part because eastern coyotes often share some genetic material with wolves.

“The question is: What is a wolf? And that’s not as simple as it sounds,” said Daniel Rosenblatt, a wildlife biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Critics say wildlife officials are slow to recognize wolves among themselves because they would have to adjust 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 region, though some admit to the possibility of scattered lone wolves. They don’t show up on trail cameras, they say. Maine Division of Wildlife Director Nate Webb said if wolves returned to his state, they would be hunting elk.

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“I have worked with wolves for over a decade and have personally attended hundreds of wolf kills. And it’s very, very easy to tell when wolves have killed a moose,” Webb said. “And that just isn’t happening here in Maine.”

Wolves were shot, trapped, and poisoned in the Northeast in the early 20th century, leaving a void for coyotes to fill. Smaller than wolves with more pointed snouts and ears, eastern coyotes are now common in the region.

But it’s not unusual for people in the Northeast to report that the canines seem too big and bulky to be coyotes, typically weighing around 40 pounds (18 kilograms).

In New York’s Adirondack Mountains, wolf advocate Joseph Butera said his friends and neighbors have seen animals larger than German shepherds and that he constantly sees large canine tracks in the woods.

“And every once in a while, 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, domestic animals, or wolf-dog hybrids.

But a 2011 academic study that used carbon isotopes to distinguish wild from captive wolves suggested that at least three wild wolves lived in Vermont and New York in 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 between 1993 and 2007. He believes these cases likely represent a fraction of wolves in the Northeast.

Advocates point out that wolves can travel hundreds of miles and that wolf populations have already rebounded around the Great Lakes and further west.

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Some canine researchers say it’s unclear if there are sustained populations in the Northeast, but it seems likely that wolves are roaming the region.

“In all honesty, I don’t know how there can’t be, just based on the biology that canines disperse incredible distances. For sheer fact alone, why wouldn’t there be? Unless they are always 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 received a tip about images posted online of a hunter with his prey this winter west of Albany, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of the Canadian border. . The hunter agreed to provide an 85-pound (39-kilogram) tissue sample from the animal to the defenders. A 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 more closely identified as an eastern coyote. The conclusion was based in part on maternal DNA markers, although the analysis found ample evidence of wolf genetic material.

VonHoldt, leader of the North American Canine Ancestry Project, said both tests were based 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 running additional tests on samples from the animal.

The problem facing any genetic analyst is the blurred line between wolves and eastern coyotes. Researchers believe that coyotes heading east over the Great Lakes mated with wolves. The result is that eastern coyotes are slightly more muscular than western coyotes. Some people even use the term “coywolves”.

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“Where do you draw the line between the two?” asked Patrick Tate, a wildlife biologist with the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game. “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 reassessing this animal, but also trying to collect more genetic data on coyotes so they have a better idea of ​​the composition of canines in general in the forest.

“We know this question is not going to go away,” he said.