Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Phil Brown: Wild Wolves in the Northeast

Reuben Cary shot the last wolf in the Adirondacks in 1899 … or so he thought. Afterward, he posed next to the carcass for a photo. The stuffed wolf is now on exhibit in the Adirondack Museum.

Cary’s claim to fame is no longer valid. A new study by two scientists from the New York State Museum found that at least three wild wolves have been shot in the Northeast in recent decades, including one in the Adirondacks.

The Adirondack wolf—an eighty-three-pound male—was killed north of Great Sacandaga Lake in 2001 by a coyote hunter. The animal was lured by a deer carcass used as bait. Because wolves are classified as endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the hunter but did not prosecute him.

The other two wolves were shot in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in 1998 and 2006, presumably after migrating south from Quebec.

The three specimens did not show signs of captivity, but the new study confirmed that they were indeed wild.

Roland Kays and Robert Feranec, the State Museum scientists, analyzed bone and hair samples from the three wolves and from five others shot in New York and New England to determine whether the animals had been subsisting on a wild or domestic diet.

The study notes that captive wolves usually are fed meat from domesticated animals raised on corn. In contrast, wild wolves hunt deer and other herbivores that consume wild plants. The wild plants of the Northeast and corn have different methods of photosynthesis and so produce different carbon isotopes. The carbon isotopes are passed up the food chain from herbivore to predator.

In short, wolves are what they eat.

In testing for these isotopes, the scientists found that three of the wolves had a wild diet and five had a domestic diet. They also found evidence that one of the captive wolves had been living in the wild for sometime before it was shot in Maine. Two captives were shot in New York State, in Allegheny County and Cayuga County.

The scientists don’t know where the wild wolves originated, but two possibilities are the upper Great Lakes and Ontario’s Algonquin Park. Kays said it’s likely that other wolves have migrated to the Northeast and that more will follow.

“We know a few animals have wandered here on their own,” Kays said. “There’s no evidence of a breeding population.”

Kays said the study, published in Northeastern Naturalist, underscores the need for the northeastern states to develop a plan to protect migrant wolves.

At the moment, gray wolves are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing protection for gray wolves in the Northeast. In a shift in its scientific position, the service contends that the gray wolf (Canis lupus) is a separate species from the wolf that once lived in the Northeast. The service calls that species the eastern timber wolf (Canis lycaon).

The service changed its stance this year just before a major study, co-authored by Kays, concluded that all wolves in the North America are varieties of the gray wolf and hence one species. For that study, researchers analyzed forty-eight thousand “genetic markers” in wolves, coyotes, and dogs. It was touted as the most comprehensive study of its kind.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of giving up on wolf recovery in the Northeast. Christopher Amato, DEC’s assistant commissioner for natural resources, said the latest study shows that wolves could return to the region on their own.

“We urge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its recent proposals and to update its wolf-recovery plan to reflect this new scientific information and support the natural recolonization by wolves,” Amato said in an e-mail to the Adirondack Explorer.

DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino said gray wolves are on DEC’s endangered-species list and thus are protected in New York. “However, we believe continued federal protections are necessary to ensure that wolves entering any of the northeastern states are protected,” she added.

In the twentieth century, after the extirpation of wolves, coyotes migrated to the Northeast, partially filling the niche of the larger canid. Some northeastern coyotes are part wolf, but Kays said they are still significantly smaller than wolves.

Photo courtesy of State Museum: pelt of wolf shot in 2001.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

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