ALBANY, NY (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 a recent DNA analysis shows that a powerful 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 who say they could cross the frozen St. Lawrence River as they head 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 are coming down and crossing the St. Lawrence. And they are killed. And they are called coyotes.”
Not everyone is convinced.
The test results are the latest in a long-running dispute 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 typically share some genetic material with wolves.
“The question is: what is a wolf? And that’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Daniel Rosenblatt, a wildlife biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
Critics argue that conservationists are slow to recognize wolves in their midst because they would have to accommodate the presence of a federally protected species.
State wildlife park officials say there is no evidence that feral wolves have re-established themselves in the region, although some acknowledge the possibility of dispersed lone wolves. They don’t show up on the trail cameras, they say. Nate Webb, director of the Maine Wildlife Division, said if wolves returned to his state, they would hunt moose.
“I’ve worked with wolves for over a decade and personally been to hundreds of wolf kills. And it’s pretty, pretty easy to see when a moose has been killed by wolves,” Webb said. “And that just doesn’t happen here in Maine.”
Wolves were effectively shot, captured and poisoned from the Northeast at the turn of the 20th century, leaving a void for coyotes to fill. Smaller than wolves with pointed muzzles and ears, eastern coyotes are now common in the region.
But it’s not uncommon for people in the Northeast to report canines that are seemingly too big and bulky to be coyotes, which typically weigh 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 he constantly sees large dog tracks in the woods.
“And on a blue moon, you hear a howl that you know isn’t a coyote,” said Butera, president of the Northeast Ecological Recovery Society.
Sightings of wolves can be dismissed as humans misidentifying coyotes, domestic animals, or wolf dog hybrids.
But a 2011 academic study using carbon isotopes to distinguish wild from captive wolves suggested that at least three feral wolves lived in Vermont and New York in the previous decade.
Glowa, citing DNA analyzes 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 these cases likely represent a fraction of the wolves in the Northeast.
Proponents note that wolves can travel hundreds of miles and wolf populations have already recovered around the Great Lakes and further west.
Some canine researchers say it’s not clear if there are ongoing populations in the Northeast, but it seems wolves are roaming the region.
“Frankly, I don’t know how it couldn’t be, based solely on the biology that canines travel incredible distances. Based on pure facts alone, why wouldn’t there be one? Unless they’re always being hunted,” says Bridgett vonHoldt, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University.
In the case of the recent New York animal, Glowa said he was tipped off about photos posted online this winter by a hunter with its prey west of Albany, about 150 miles south of the Canadian border. The hunter agreed to provide lawyers with a tissue sample from the 85-pound (39 kilograms) animal. A lab analysis showed mostly wolf ancestors, with a very small amount of coyote genetic material.
However, New York environmental officials say a separate DNA analysis they commissioned found that the animal was most commonly 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. According to her, without more data, it could not be concluded that the animal was a coyote or a wolf.
The Princeton lab performs additional tests on samples from the animal.
The problem any genetic analyst faces is the blurred line between wolves and eastern coyotes. Researchers believe that coyotes are migrating east across the Great Lakes that were bred with wolves. As a result, eastern coyotes are a bit more muscular than those in the west. Some people even use the term “coywolves.”
“Where do you draw the line between the two?” asked wildlife biologist Patrick Tate of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. ‘How much wolf DNA can you need to make it a wild wolf? How much coyote DNA do you need to make it a coyote?”
Rosenblatt said New York is not only retesting this animal, but is also trying to collect more genetic data on coyotes so they have a better idea of the makeup of the canines in the forest.
“We know this question will not go away,” he said.