The Wolf Is at the Door

The Wolf Is at the Door

By Carrie Thompson

Last December, an unidentified hunter in Central New York killed a coyote — or so he thought. The hunter posted the picture of his prize on Facebook and, frankly, it looks a lot like a wolf. But there are no wolves in New York State, right?

This post was spotted by a member of the Northeast Ecological Recovery Society and the hunter was contacted for a tissue sample submission. He complied and the DNA results are in; 100% wolf. The sample tested as a mix of “Great Lakes Wolf, Northwest Territories Grey Wolf, and Eastern Wolf. The purity of this DNA sample is consistent with a wild wolf ‘dispersed’ from Canada where wild wolves are known to intermingle”.

The discovery that the animal was a pure wolf came as a surprise to the organization due to the assumption that wolves, which thrive in the Canadian and Alaskan territories, are prevented from traveling into the Adirondacks by the Saint Lawrence River acting as a natural barrier.

However, there have been 11 wolf kills south of the river documented since 1993. A dispersal wolf, aka a lone wolf, is a male or female who leaves their natal pack and travels alone in search of new hunting grounds and a mate. Due to lack of suitable breeding pairs and hierarchical packs, dispersing wolves will readily crossbreed with eastern coyotes as they attempt to recolonize a territory. In other words, the assumption was that the “coyote” would test as a hybrid, also known as a coywolf. Typically, a wolf pack is comprised of one alpha male and one alpha female. If the conditions are favorable (plentiful hunting grounds, low risk from rivals and a friendly human population) males and females will remain in the pack. If conditions are not satisfactory, for whatever reason, wolves between the ages of one to two years will leave in search of their own territory to create their own pack. Wolves are highly territorial and dispersal wolves travel great distances to locate an unoccupied territory. Lone wolves have been known to travel up to 600 miles and swim 8 miles in search of this new home. If they are lucky enough to survive the perilous journey and find a mate, as well as promising hunting grounds, they will settle.

In New York State coyotes are in a category know as Furbearer, which means that state hunting license rules apply.

They may be hunted at any time of day or night using a plethora of weapons according to the Department of Environmental Conservation/New York State website. Wolves, however, are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Protection Act and therefore are illegal to kill.

After 45 years of federal protection the grey wolves were deemed to have made a successful recovery in that the grey wolf population exceeded goals and numbered over 6,000. As a result, in 2020 the Trump administration delisted the grey wolf category as a federally protected species and regulation of the population was returned to the states, with the caveat that the Fish and Wildlife Service was to continue to monitor the species to ensure its continuing successful reentry. Since passing the governance back to the states, wolf hunting became legalized and there have been passionate cries of outrage by those who seek to continue to protect the grey wolf. States which have healthy wolf populations such as Montana, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Idaho have sanctioned policy rules which regulate hunting but conservationists state it became an all-out siege slaughter against the wolf population. Wolf advocates claim it quickly dissipated from hunting a limited quota to killing sprees where dozens of wolves were killed in unregulated culling.

The federal policy of wolf protection was restored in February 2022 by U.S. District Judge Jeffery S. White in Northern California for the lower 48, but it excludes the Rocky Mountain states where there is intense political pressure from existing hunting groups. The legal judgement focused not only on numbers and statistics but on the incalculable threat and attitudes the community culture has surrounding wolves. The concern is aggression demonstrated historically by poisoning, trapping, hunting, and killing simply for sport would reverse the repopulation gains made in recent years. It is a fragile situation and an ongoing debate as to what entity, state or federal, should control the wolf population.

Anecdotally, our central New York neighbors and residents speak of hearing the coyotes at night howling in larger and larger packs. Finding unusually large paw prints and catching glimpses of what “looks like” a mountain lion or bobcat, black bear or wolf. What we can hope for is a balanced ecosystem which is self-sustaining and self-regulating. If we can keep the human predators at bay the wolves have a chance to expand into their natural territories and thrive in nature’s orderly chain. The wolves lived in abundant numbers in North America for hundreds of years and as they reclaim their territory one can only champion the cause and their right to exist.

The majestic and mysterious wolf occupies an uneasy place in the hearts and minds of most people. Possibly because we tend anthropomorphize them as we do our dogs. From the symbology of papal power in ancient Rome, central imagery of Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf at the edge of the Tiber River, to The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, many ages, places and peoples have romanticized, mythologized and demonized the wolf.

The history of wolves in central New York, their disappearance and now sudden reemergence, is a fascinating story of time and natural order — a never-ending cycle of man versus nature. This is the beginning of a new chapter in wolf human relations, and we will see how it plays out this time around.

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