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How Mistaken Identity and One Bullet Revealed a Star Predator Far From Home

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There was a lot of rustling in the bushes, so Mr. Brian Christman raised his muzzle loader at the deer that might come. The season was coming to an end in central New York, and Mr. Christman was hoping to take home a dime.

Instead, he saw what looked like a large white dog staring at him. Suddenly Mr. Christmann felt like prey. He smelled like a doe in heat. He lined up the animal on the scope and pulled the trigger.

“I thought it was a giant coyote,” Christman recently recalled.

It wasn’t. And this blow will open up a new uncertain front in the war over perhaps America’s most beloved and condemned predator. Genetic analysis and other tests have revealed that the 85-pound animal that was killed in December 2021 was actually a gray wolf that was eating wild food. By all appearances, it was not an escaped prisoner of war.

A group of passionate conservationists in the region have long claimed that wolves are encroaching into the upper Northeast forests from Canada and the Great Lakes. To them, the shooting near Cooperstown is evidence that government agencies need to do more to find and protect animals.

But when it comes to protecting the apex predator, the wolf, which was nearly exterminated by American settlers and their descendants more than a century ago, controversy is never far away.

Brian Christman near Cooperstown, December 2021.credit…Via Brian Christman

From afar, people like the idea of ​​charismatic species like wolves returning to the landscape, said Dan Rosenblatt, director of endangered and non-game animals for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. said a lot. If you talk about them in someone’s backyard or anywhere you like to hike, “that level of support tends to drop off pretty quickly,” he said.

Two other wolves have been spotted in New York in the past 25 years, the state said. One of them was killed by hunters in 2001, but was probably wild. However, the region is home to particularly large coyotes, making it difficult to prove that the large canids seen are in fact wolves. Scientists say its size is the result of a historic, and possibly ongoing, interspecies hunky-panky.

Wolves, coyotes, and dogs can all mate and produce fertile offspring. Researchers have found that coyotes from the Northeast have large amounts of wolf DNA, often around 20%. This tradition gave rise to the name “coywolf,” but many scientists dislike the term because it means a different species, or something like a 50/50 hybrid.

Rather, “it’s a big deal,” says geneticist Brigitte Vonholdt, a Princeton University professor who studies canids such as Great Lakes gray wolves, Canadian eastern gray wolves, coyotes and dogs. “Many genetic traits are shared among all these dogs, which has created a great deal of confusion for the public and poses challenges for management.”

Species matter legally. In New York, wolves are protected under state and federal law. From October to March, you can kill an unlimited number of coyotes.

Joseph Boutella, a former telephone mechanic with a home in the Adirondack, climbed a hill in the woods, put his hands over his mouth, closed his eyes and howled. The reaction he tried to elicit from the wolves nearby was never returned, but he remained cheerful. Boutella said he believes the wolf has returned to the Adirondacks and is determined to prove it.

His love for animals is not for that species alone. “Ecosystems can’t function properly without predators,” he says. In his view, wolves are what the forest needs to restore health and balance.

So Boutella worked with a growing number of wolf enthusiasts in the Northeast and beyond to raise awareness and gather evidence. One of the Coalition’s central goals is to prevent returning wolves from being shot as coyotes.

A collaborator from Maine, John Gloire, discovered Christman’s hunting photos on social media. He told Mr. Boutella, who called Mr. Christmann for a tissue sample. The body was already at the taxidermist’s, so Boutella rushed over.

“The man gave me lungs and a tongue,” Boutella said. “And the rest is history.”

Ninety-eight percent of the samples analyzed at the University of Trent, Ontario, were wolves. Another was sent to Dr. Von Holt at Princeton University, but it came back 99% of the time.

The New York State Department of Environmental Protection also took samples and sent them to universities, where less sophisticated methods were used, the state admits. That analysis concluded that the animal was 65% a wolf with a coyote mother and determined the animal to be a coyote. The state eventually quashed those results, declaring the animal to be a wolf, possibly from the Midwestern herds around the Great Lakes.

Important victories for Mr. Boutella’s coalition followed. The state of New York added a warning to its coyote hunting page that wolves are protected, urging hunters to “be careful in identifying large canids you encounter.”a Other page Explain how to distinguish between species. For example, coyotes have pointed noses and long ears.

And last month, the New York legislature passed a bill banning many hunting competitions that award prizes to whoever kills the most animals or the heaviest. In such an annual contest, the heaviest coyote is awarded $2,000. Press secretary Katie Zielinski said Gov. Kathy Hochul is considering the bill.

Advocates have identified 12 wolves on the south side of the St. Lawrence Riverhas been a natural obstacle for the pack in Canada since 1993.

“It’s very plausible that there are other individuals in the Northeast, and that’s the word plausible,” said Michigan Tech, who has studied wolf behavior in the wild for decades. said Professor John Vucetich of

Wolf advocates aren’t waiting for the state to hunt the animal. On her walks, Boutella carries test tubes of alcohol to check the ground for manure.

“Oh, look at this size!” he said on a recent afternoon, staring wide-eyed at fresh samples on a Franklin County laneway. He measured and photographed the large poop (which, to dog owners, definitely looks like a dog), then used chopsticks to pick up a piece of it and placed it in a plastic tube for genetic testing. rice field. “This is very impressive,” he said, and the size and content convinced him that it was produced by wolves. “This wins the lottery.”

Before the arrival of Europeans, wolves lived from coast to coast over what is now the United States. Hunted to near extinction by the early 1900s, it has been regaining territory in recent decades. Humans were involved in the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, but other benefits were obtained by the animals themselves. The population that remained in Minnesota spread to neighboring states and continued to grow. More recently, a breeding population of wolves was established in northern California.

As their numbers grow, so does the debate about how to manage them. During the Trump administration, federal wildlife officials removed them from the endangered species list. A judge later overturned that decision and protection was restored.

Dr. Vucetich of Michigan Tech and Dr. Rosenblatt of the New York Environmental Protection Agency say that although individual wolves occasionally find their way to the northeastern United States, packs do not exist. They claim they will leave enough evidence, including the killing of a moose, but this has never materialized.

Advocates accuse state agencies of turning a blind eye to protecting wolves because they are considered politically dangerous.

“Right now, the state is operating in a state of ignorance as far as wolves are concerned,” said Christopher Amato. He spent several years at the Department of Environmental Conservation as Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources and now directs conservation at the non-profit Protect the Adirondacks. group. “No effort was made to find out what was going on there.”

But Dr. Rosenblatt said the problem is prioritizing species known to exist in the state.

Dr. Rosenblatt named 70 endangered and endangered species and said, “There are many more painful environmental stewardship issues facing us today that must be addressed.” “If it weren’t for time constraints, it wouldn’t be a problem at all,” he says.

Dr. von Holt of Princeton University advocated a more holistic view of the management of large wild dogs. Instead of trying to keep wolves and coyotes in neat boxes, he said, authorities should focus on the ecological services that both can provide, such as preying on overpopulated deer.

Christmann, the hunter who shot the New York wolf, was initially disappointed that the giant animal he carried out of the woods on his back wasn’t the record-setting coyote.

The mount was confiscated by the state because it is an endangered species. But like many hunters, Christmann considers himself a conservationist and is happy to have helped bring wolves to light on the wild lands he loves. there is

“It is most important to make the public aware of what is around us and our beautiful state,” he said.

audio creator Kate Winslet.

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