Monday, March 16, 2015

Will Wolves Return To The Adirondacks?

CreeStanding in a snowy meadow in Wilmington, a wolf lifts its head and howls, breaking the near silence on a cold winter day. Just a few feet away Steve Hall watches the scene, a leash in his hand.

The wolf on the other end of the leash is one of three owned by Hall and his wife, Wendy, a wildlife rehabilitator. The couple owns Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, and the animals are used for education, including popular “wolf walks.” During the walks, visitors hike with Hall and the wolves. Hall hopes the walks will give people a better understanding of animals that are commonly feared even though they rarely attack humans.

Hall yearns for a day that wild wolves return to the Adirondacks. He sees the wolf not only as filling an important role in the ecosystem as a keystone predator, but also as a tourist draw.

“We publicize the Adirondacks for summer hiking, fishing, hunting, winter sports, stuff like that, but also it could be a good place to see wildlife,” Hall said. “I think we should position the Adirondacks as another place to see wildlife a la Algonquin Park [in Ontario]. We’d start to open up to a whole new type of tourist.”

Hall is one of numerous wildlife advocates who are hoping state and federal wildlife agencies will work to facilitate the wolf’s return to the Northeast. Wolves disappeared from New York State around 1900 as a result of habitat destruction and unregulated hunting. Between 1871 and 1897, ninety-eight wolves were killed for bounties in the state, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Gray wolves are listed as endangered in the Lower 48 states, but largely because they have made a comeback out west, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed delisting them. Wolves also are on New York State’s list of endangered species. In December, however, the state Department of Environmental Conservation dropped cougars, lynx, and wolves from its proposed list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need. In the past, extirpated species had been on that list, which is part of the state’s Wildlife Action Plan.

“We feel that our conservation work is better directed at retaining viable populations of the species that are currently present in New York,” said DEC biologist Joe Racette, coordinator of the Wildlife Action Plan.

At this time, DEC has no interest in reintroducing wolves to the state. Gordon Batcheller, DEC’s chief wildlife biologist, told the Adirondack Explorer that the department lacks the staff and funding to reintroduce or aid the recovery of large predators such as mountain lions and wolves. He also said the department already has its hands full with hundreds of other species in need of protection. Furthermore, he said reintroducing cougars or wolves would be a complex undertaking, requiring the cooperation of nearby states and support from a wide range of stakeholders.

“We just aren’t able to take this one on right now because it’s so huge,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity to deal with it, and it would take an awful lot of analysis and evaluation and public engagement before we even got out of the gate.”

Peter Nye, who headed the DEC Endangered Species Unit before retiring in 2010, said wolves didn’t have the public’s support in the 1990s, when there was a campaign to bring them back, and doubts that they do now. “We didn’t actively have any programs to even think about bringing wolves back,” Nye said. “It was just too contentious.”

Both Batcheller and Nye said wolves probably would migrate beyond the Adirondack Park to low-lying areas where deer are more plentiful. “That would immediately, of course, set up a problem for the animals in terms of people interactions,” Nye said.

Wolves are known to prey on livestock, and like other predators, they have a reputation for being dangerous to humans, even though only a handful of fatal wolf attacks have been recorded in North America.

Cristina Eisenberg, scientist for Earthwatch, an international nonprofit, lived in northern Montana and observed wolves recolonizing that area. “Wolves are not at all dangerous to humans in my experience,” she said.

“I’ve been around hundreds of wild wolves at very close range and they don’t see us as prey.”

“The only wolves that are dangerous, that have been documented attacking or killing people, are wolves that are habituated by humans to human food,” she added.

Even if DEC won’t reintroduce wolves, wildlife advocates are hopeful that someday the predators will recolonize the Adirondacks on their own. Over the years, there have been a number of reported wolf sightings, but physical evidence has generally been lacking. Scientists did confirm that a wild wolf was killed in Day, north of the Great Sacandaga Lake, in December 2001.

Wolf populations have rebounded and expanded out west. In the Great Lakes region – Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – there are now 4,500 animals and tens of thousands of wolves live in Canada.

“One of the amazing things about the past few years is all these animals—cougars or wolves or what have you – are just really showing us that their wildways do exist, these corridors, and most of these animals, they roam,” said Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center in downstate New York and coordinator of the Northeast Wolf Coalition, which was formed last year by scientists and environmental groups.

Wildlife advocates believe the wolf stands a better chance than the cougar of returning to the Adirondacks. Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, which lies a couple of hundred miles to the northwest, has a few hundred wolves and even sponsors wolf howls for tourists. Wolves from Algonquin are the most likely to disperse to the Adirondacks, according to many observers. Nevertheless, there are obstacles.

“The eastern wolf is really close, but there is very aggressive hunting and trapping between here and Algonquin Park,” Howell said. In addition, wolves must cross numerous roads, including Highway 401 in southern Ontario, a fragmented landscape, and the St. Lawrence River.

Yet there is evidence that Canadian wolves can make it across the border. In addition to the animal killed in Day in 2001, two wolves were shot in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in 1998 and 2006, presumably after migrating south from Quebec.

“And these are only the ones we know of because we killed them,” said Eisenberg, who is writing a book on eastern carnivore conservation. “From what I know, this is the tip of the iceberg, that there are many more that are making their way down, likely down from Canada, although some may be dispersing from the upper Midwest.”

Evidently, New York State has plenty of habitat and prey to support a wolf population. The Eastern Wolf Status Assessment Report, prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011, concluded that “sizeable areas of potential wolf habitat exists in this state, especially in the area of the Adirondacks.” The report refers to several studies that reached the same conclusion, including one that estimated that the state could have supported up to 460 wolves in 2000.

If wolves do return to the Adirondacks, one concern is that hunters will mistake them for coyotes and shoot them. Like many states, New York has a liberal coyote-hunting season, lasting from fall to spring. Moreover, the state allows hunters to kill an unlimited number of coyotes and doesn’t require hunters to report their kills.

The Northeast Wolf Coalition argues that one reason DEC needs a wolf-recovery plan is to protect dispersing wolves from coyote hunters.

“There is evidence that wolves have attempted to naturally recolonize the region,” Howell said. “But because states in the region sanction policies that encourage the unregulated killing of canids, this evidence is in the form of dead wolves. New York needs a management plan to address the potential return of wolves, to promote wolf recovery, educate the public, and have a plan in place to protect wolves from being killed accidentally or intentionally.”

In the 2005 version of the state’s Wildlife Action Plan, which is being updated, DEC took more interest in the wolf. The report noted that wolves from Algonquin Park range to within fifty miles of the New York border. The report also discussed the need for surveying public opinion about wolf recovery, adding that identifying the wolf as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need “will facilitate the evaluation.” DEC never conducted the survey, and Racette said it is not a high priority now.

“It is possible that wolves will be able to naturally expand their range to New York from nearby populations in Canada, and if that does occur we will conduct outreach to help people learn how to coexist with wolves,” Racette told the Explorer.

Howell says the Northeast Wolf Coalition hopes to conduct its own survey, but she couldn’t provide any details because it’s still in the early planning stages.

Wildlife advocates contend that if wolves return, they will have a beneficial impact on the environment. “In pretty much any system where you have active predation, you will have higher biodiversity than in one where you don’t. This has been observed in oceans, coral reefs, savannahs, worldwide in many different types of ecosystems,” Eisenberg said.

Yet scientists debate what, exactly, the wolf’s ecological role would be and which wolf would fill it. Because canids interbreed, the wolf gene pool has become complicated. Algonquin Park has some gray wolves, which are also found in the Great Lakes region, but the majority of them are smaller eastern wolves, which may or may not be a separate species. In addition, the eastern coyote, which lives in the Adirondacks, has some wolf genes as a result of interbreeding.

“Wolf taxonomy right now is a mess,” Eisenberg said. “The experts don’t agree about what an eastern wolf is.” Indeed, it’s uncertain what wolf originally lived in New York State.

In the Adirondacks, hybridization would likely occur between dispersing eastern wolves and the resident coyotes, according to DEC biologist Jenny Murtaugh. In contrast, scientists believe that gray wolves, such as those in the Great Lakes, do not breed with coyotes in the wild and displace them instead.

“Thus, dispersing gray wolves from Quebec and Ontario may have a higher probability of avoiding genetic swamping from eastern coyotes and establishing a viable population in New York,” Murtaugh wrote for the forthcoming Wildlife Action Plan.

Cree-walk-600x440Steve Hall, the owner of the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, acknowledges that wolves may breed with coyotes in the Adirondacks, but he still argues that their presence would make the Park a wilder place.

“I don’t really go along with the idea that we have to have pure gray wolves, pure Canadian wolves,” Hall said. “We have an animal we call the coy-wolf, who is rather impressive and rather beautiful, and I think if we let wolves come back you’ll see larger coy-wolves.”

Hall said wolves would benefit the region economically, noting that tourists visit Algonquin Park, northern Minnesota, and Yellowstone Park to hear or see wolves.

In Yellowstone, where wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s, wolf tourism translates into $35 million a year in visitor spending, according to a 2006 report prepared for the Yellowstone Park Foundation.

Lake Placid resident Larry Master, a former chief zoologist for the Nature Conservancy and an Adirondack Explorer board member, has visited Yellowstone Park to photograph wolves. “My god, I would love to hear wolf packs,” Master said. “People camp for weeks on end in late May, early June in camper vans with telescopes and spotting scopes with the hope of seeing a wolf, or wolf packs hunting. It’s an enormous economic boon for that area.”

Photos by Mike Lynch: Above, Cree one of three wolves at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge; and below, Steve Hall takes Cree for a walk.

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.


Mike Lynch

Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues.

Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine.

From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake.

Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at mike@adirondackexplorer.org.




22 Responses

  1. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    It’s been a long time since I researched this for my own reporting, but from Mike’s treatment it looks like the science is pretty much unchanged. If so, I think this article falls into a pattern that I find a bit problematic.

    Every couple of years, a reporter writes a big think-piece about the Adirondacks and wolves, framing the debate along well-worn lines. Would re-introduction work? Who would oppose it? Wouldn’t it be cool to have wolves here?

    Then they get around (usually toward the middle or end of the article) to acknowledging that the science doesn’t support that framing at all. The best research we have right now suggests that gray wolves probably never lived here in any significant numbers.

    It appears that the kinds of wolves that did live here were so genetically similar to our current top-tier predators (coyotes) that they interbreed successfully. (Thus the genetic swamping problem that Mike mentions.)

    In fact, there’s so much genetic exchange among wolf and coyote species in the East that some scientists now refer to a “Canis hybrid swarm.”

    Meanwhile, the kinds of genetically pure gray wolves you can see in Wilmington almost certainly weren’t natural to this landscape. Introducing them here would have more to do with our romantic notions about wildness than about the real thing. As much as some might wish it so, the Adirondacks are not Yellowstone.

    Finally, I’ll acknowledge a bias in this debate. I find our present-day coyotes — which hunt in packs, prey on deer, and exist comfortably without human mediation — to be fascinating, beautiful, and exquisitely wild creatures. I often hear them howling and chorusing in the woods near my camp in Westport. I occasionally find their deer-kills in my fields.

    So until someone can make a much stronger scientific argument for why we humans should attempt to replace these successful canid predators with some other variety (that may in fact be an invasive species), I suspect the “re-introduction” debate will remain a non-starter.

    –Brian Mann, NCPR

    • AG says:

      I think the gist of the article is that wolves can return on their own. They live very close by in Canada….
      Also – scientifically there is a distinction. That is why Ontario banned coyote hunting near Algonquin… Two many “wolves” were being mistaken and it was thinning the wolf gene pool. Wolves prefer other wolves… Coyotes prefer other coyotes. They interbreed when they can’t find others closer to their own genetics. Algonquin has distinctions of wolf – coywolf – coyote (not sure about in Gatineau) – so why shouldn’t upstate NY and New England be afforded the same mixture of animals??? The only thing stopping it is hunters. Unlike cougars – females will also travel hundreds of miles looking for mates… That keeps the genes strong. Unless – like happened near the Grand Canyon a few months back – the female which travelled almost 700 miles was shot by a guy thinking it was a coyote.

    • Phil Brown Phil Brown says:

      Brian, Mike is working on a series of articles on missing predators in the Adirondacks. The wolf article is the second in that series. One impetus for the series was a recent gathering in Lake Placid of wildlife scientists who discussed the missing predators (cougar, wolf, and lynx). Another is that DEC is revising its Wildlife Action Plan, and some people think the plan should include steps to facilitate the return of these predators–even if the department has no interest in reintroductions.

  2. Ed Zahniser says:

    Thanks for this nice account, Mike. When wolves reintroduced themselves to Glacier National Park, it had a great impact on predation that benefitted a wider range of wildlife and especially scavengers. Before the wolves returned, mtn lions would make a kill, eat their fill, cover the carcass, and bed down nearby to feed episodically on their kill. After the wolves came, the mtn lion would make a kill, eat as much as it could as rapidly as it could and then clear out before the wolves moved in. This benefitted not just the wolves but smaller predators and, again, scavengers. No one in the park predicted such a profound change in overall behaviors. That does restore a wildness that no one expected had existed before.

  3. Bruce says:

    I’m going to play the devil’s advocate here, so don’t be upset.

    I’m certainly not against re-introduction of the wolf to the Adirondacks. I know the re-introduction of the Red Wolf into NC (Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge) has run into some difficulty.

    People go to Yellowstone to view wolves because there are vast, open areas, accessible by road, where they hunt elk and bison, making viewing relatively easy. I don’t see that in the Adirondacks.. In Alaska, where the wolf still reigns supreme, sightings are not all that common even by locals, because of terrain, dense habitat, and the secretive nature of the wolf. Folks hear wolves, and see their sign, but actual sightings?

    Wolf tourist dollars are going to depend on having areas where sightings can take place on a fairly regular basis, and are accessible. Do we realistically have that in the Adirondacks?

    Bring back the wolf, but don’t expect a huge influx of tourist dollars. There are what, about 1000 Moose in NY now? As majestic as they are, have there been real tourist dollars generated through moose sightings and photographic opportunities? According to the article, the habitat can support about 400 wolves in areas which are mostly dense forest. Unless folks come expecting only to hear wolves rather than actually seeing them, I just can’t get my head around a big, new tourist draw based on wolves.

    One other factor not discussed is livestock predation. Bears will be hibernating, but wolves hunt all year, and deep snow is their forte. A normal, wire livestock fence is no barrier to a wolf.

    • AG says:

      Actually in Gatineau in Quebec people do have groups that pay to go out at night just to hear wolves howl. I also believe they do that in North Carolina with the Red Wolves. I’m sure you can find some on Youtube even.

      As to livestock predation… Wherever they currently co-exist – coyotes prey on more livestock. Wolves don’t like to be around people. So it’s doubtful there would be any significant increase… Coyotes are already here and thrive near people. Coyote populations will be reduced – since wolves kill coyotes. It depends on the genetic make up though.

    • Wally Elton Wally Elton says:

      Yup, the chance of hearing them would be enough for me to get there more often. And even just knowing a wolf (regardless of genetics) could be nearby would add so much to my hiking experience.

  4. charles m. siwik says:

    I agree with this as long as the population of the Wolf is not allowed to get to the point where it is out of hand.

  5. Mark Gibson says:

    Many would love to see the return of the region’s apex predators, wolves especially, certainly I would. The romance of the wild wolf is commands the affection of many who have deep feelings for the value of wilderness. But to many in the hunting and livestock communities they are equally deeply despised, viewed as rapacious killers that deserve nothing more than annihilation. In the west, where I live much of the year, there are many for whom the only good wolf is a dead, and their voice is strong.

    Perhaps no other issue more deeply divides those who share a love of the natural world and highlights the differences among them between nature as an intrinsic value or as a resource. De-listing the wolf’s protected status, and unrestricted “shoot on sight” legislation perenially occupies legislatures in states such as Idaho and Utah.

    Re-introduction of the wolf in Yellowstone, profoundly, and to many wildlife experts, beneficially altered the Yellowstone ecosystem. http://nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=126853&org=NSF But their beneficence there has been authoritatively challenged as well. http://www.esa.org/esablog/ecology-in-the-news/yellowstone-wolves-take-a-blow-to-their-rep/ Their impact on human visitation to view and photograph them in Yellowstone is greatly facilitated by the vast open reaches of the Park in the Lamar Valley in particular and such viewing opportunities in the heavily forested Adirondacks are not likely to occur. Even if not often seen, though, they would be heard, their impact would be felt, and just knowing they were there would be a comfort and exhilaration for many.

    Policies for re-introduction and protection would undoubtedly be politically fraught, extremely so, even in the northeast. Best perhaps to wait for them to find their way here and establish themselves successfully. Such would be more likely than an act of human intention. One can imaging some protections for them were they to do so. One can hope.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    I tend to agree with Brian and Bruce.
    If wolves can do it on their own, great. If they can’t, we do have some very nice coyotes.
    One final point, I don’t believe the reason to protect any animal is so people can look at them and spend “tourist dollars.”
    All animals have a right to exist without being a source of income for anyone. And that includes all the animals that are hunted and killed for any reason.
    Screw the almighty dollar.

    • Bruce says:

      Pete,

      I essentially agree with your sentiments about bringing back an animal because tourist dollars may come with it, my philosophy about hunting is different though. I don’t hunt anymore, but I do fish, which could be considered the same thing.

      If wolves are expanding southward out of Canada, and if they find suitable habitat in the Adirondacks, like the moose, they will come. In fact, I believe that since moose are a primary food source where wolves and moose co-exist in sufficient numbers, there’s no reason to believe wolves won’t eventually follow. That’s a far better situation than artificially trying to establish a viable population through importation and release.

      Watching the TV shows “Mountain Men” and others, I’m struck by the fact that although some of these people live well and truly in wolf country, and are outdoors in the woods nearly every day, how rare actual wolf sightings are.

  7. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Oh….gee whiz..another “bring back the wolves” article in the Adirondack Almanac to tickle the fantasies of the “Pro wolf” crowd. Thanks goodness we’ve got some realistic comments this time unlike the typical “Disneyland” rhetoric that has followed “Wolf” and “Mountain Lion” articles in the past.

    Hey Adirondack Almanac…how about giving the articles a rest?

    Coyotes have a done a good job (depending upon your perspective that is) at filling the niche left open by wolves way back when they were extirpated. For once NYS DEC is moving in the right direction and is right on target with their approach, socially, environmentally and definitely budgetarily!

    Thanks for listening.

    • AG says:

      “Thanks for listening”? Did you actually read the article? This was mainly about dispersing wolves from Ontario and Quebec rather than re-introduction.

      Also it’s laughable to think coyotes fill the void left ecologically by wolves. That’s like saying a Barred Owl will fill the void if we killed off Great Horned Owls… Yeah there is overlap in prey – but it’s not the same at all.

      • Wally Elton Wally Elton says:

        I was wondering the same. And lots of people seem concerned about coyotes. They should hope wolves return!

        • Paul says:

          I think that the folks that are concerned about coyotes are probably folks that are concerned about coyote predation on deer. Wolves are very good in that regard so I am not sure bringing in the wolves to get rid of the coyotes is their preferred solution! Maybe.

          Is there consensus among scientists that the area is suitable habitat and that sufficient prey is available?

          • AG says:

            There is almost no consensus on anything in the ecology. Wolves and other predators have proven time and again that as long as they are not persecuted – they can make habitat work for them.
            As to deer… Well that’s the closest you will get to consensus – which is the idea that there are too many deer in NY and New England. It’s not a “natural balance”.
            Again though – I don’t think this is about re-introduction – but rather allowing them to return on their own… That means not killing the migratory ones.

            • Paul says:

              You might need to ban shooting coyotes. When I lived out west the coyotes we had were so different than a wolf (especially smaller) that I don’t think you could make the mistake. I have seen a number of coyotes here in the Adirondacks and they come in all colors and sizes. I think that wolves also come in a number of coat colors, and of course they are not all 120 pounds when they are born.

              • AG says:

                That is exactly what Ontario did in the areas surrounding Algonquin Park. Coyote hunting was banned because people confused them with wolves. I haven’t heard of Ontario being overrun with coyotes at all.. Ontario seems to still be thriving.

  8. Paul says:

    This is fun to consider but it isn’t going anywhere.

    Seems to me a wolf would be nuts to stay in the Adirondacks. The pickings are too slim. They would head down here where there are far more deer per square mile and lots of traffic to boot. They can also find plenty of sheep and cows along the way.

  9. John W says:

    I for one would hate to see the gray wolf re-introduced to the Adirondack region. The area has a low deer density and the few moose that live there would be extirpated by these animals.

    Secondly the wolves would not remain in the parklands. They would venture out to areas with more deer density and cause a negative impact on people in such places.

    When the Canadian hybrid wolf was imported too the Yellowstone Area during the Clinton Administration the wolves reproduced and had extended their populations to other states. One of the negative impacts was the decimation of game herds in the West. Many guides and outfitters in Idaho went out of business. In fact, the negative impact is over 15 million dollars and possibly as high as 24 million.

    http://archives.mtexpress.com/index2.php?ID=2005125045#.VQhUrrl0yM8

    Nope. The last thing I want to see is any kind of wolf imported to the region. They have enough issues with the Eastern Coyote.

  10. Charlie S says:

    Mark Gibson says “In the west, where I live much of the year, there are many for whom the only good wolf is a dead wolf, and their voice is strong.”

    A narrow mindset Mark.It’s been around since the 1600’s and is most likely here with us to stay. The war against the wolf in this country began back then. Per instance – a wolf bounty in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay May 1645 reads thus:
    “Mr. Bartholmew, John Johnson, Mr. Sprague, Mr. Winsley, & Mr. Hubbard are chosen a committee to consider of the best ways and means to destroy the wolves which are such ravenous cruel creatures, & daily vexations to all the inhabitants of the colony, & to present their thoughts & conclusions thereabouts to this house.”

    History has shown that since the white man first arrived upon these shores every thing alive has been in danger.That has not changed.Matter of fact it has increased. To some of us those ravenous cruel creatures are what reside next door,or one street over,or are those strong voices out west.Some people just like to kill because of their ignorance or lack of compassion or because their sheep and cows are their bread and butter and nothing else matters. Or because they wont go extra lengths to come up with more humane ways to deal with wolves. Or they lack creativity.Or their moral compass is broken.Or all of the above.

    I know responsible people who just don’t like to kill any thing t’all. People who put out sacrifice tomatoes in their summer gardens so as to appease nuisance insects and save the rest of their crop. People who don’t like to spread poisons. I know people who put up stakes with red flags in their farm fields where groundhog holes persist so as not to break their ankles or have their machinery get stuck…whereas others shoot them because it’s the easy way out and because soul is lacking in them.

    I know someone who shoots anything that moves on his property….just to do it,to prove he’s a good shot. This same person is generally a moody person and very cold in nature.Icicles formed on me the last time I brushed past him. Not coincidentally he supported the Iraq war and said “Kill them all” when I put to him “But what about all of those innocent woman and children who are going to be affected by our bombs?”

    I find there’s a common thread with people who are racists,who support wars and who like to kill any thing that moves.This person I know who likes to extirpate living things on his acreage…. he has a bumper sticker on his truck that says “I voted for George W. Bush.” I’d be willing to wager that those folk out west who have this animosity towards wolves in them have the same bumper sticker on their trucks.

  11. Terri says:

    I’ve seen a wolf in Union Falls, NY. Chasing a deer and the deer jumped into the river to get away. The wolf was to big to be a coyote and/or a fox. And I was very close.