State, wildlife advocates at odds over DNA test results of animal killed last year
By Mike Lynch
There hasn’t been a known wolf population in the Northeast since about 1900, so when DNA tests released in July showed that an 85-pound canid killed in Central New York had mostly gray wolf genes, wildlife advocates saw it as a sign of hope.
“It’s tragic that the animal ended up being shot, but at the same time, we live in a world where everything seems to be being destroyed,” said Amaroq Weiss, senior wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that works to protect rare species across the U.S. “To find that there is this resilient life force of an animal that wants … to come back in the northeastern United States is actually really something to celebrate.”
A hunter killed the animal and later posted photos to social media, where it got noticed. Joseph Butera, a part-time Clinton County resident who is president of the nonprofit Northeast Ecological Recovery Society, obtained a sample of the animal’s tongue and sent it to the Natural Resources DNA Profiling & Forensic Centre at Trent University in Ontario for testing. Protect the Adirondacks paid for the analysis.
They announced the results: 98% wolf.
To be exact, the DNA analysis determined the animal was 52.6 % Great Lakes wolf, 34.5% Northwest Territories wolf and 10.9% eastern wolf. The remaining 2% was a mix of coyote and dog genes.
But since that announcement, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has said an analysis by the Wildlife Genetics Institute at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania determined the animal to be “closely identified as an Eastern coyote,” with a mix of coyote, wolf, and dog genetics.
The state now seeks another exam. The animal’s tissue is being sent to Princeton University for a third opinion. A DEC spokesman said the agency will coordinate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife on the next steps, if the analysis determines the animal was a wolf.
But wildlife advocates are confident in Trent University’s analysis.
“The lab that we sent it to has specialized in canids for like 30 years and so they are specialists, world class specialists,” said Jon Way, who got a doctorate from Boston College for his Eastern coyotes research and has written books on them.
The DEC has not released the lab report associated with the test it commissioned. The Explorer submitted a Freedom of Information Law request Friday to obtain it.
John Glowa, head of the Maine Wolf Coalition, admits that DNA testing is complicated and scientists can have different results. But he says, even if that’s the case, the animal has the traits of a wolf.
“The physical characteristics of the animal scream wolf,” he said. “There’s no such thing as an 85-pound coyote.”
Way said a big coyote is 50 pounds or so. By comparison, gray wolves in Yellowstone Park are 80 to 120 pounds.
The DEC website states that adult coyotes weigh between 35 and 45 pounds. Big coyotes may exceed 50 to 60 pounds in weight, according to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Impact to the Adirondacks
John Davis, rewilding advocate for the Adirondack Council, said he hopes the discovery of the animal opens a public discussion about wolves and changes that need to happen to protect and help them return to the Adirondacks.
The wolf is currently listed as endangered in New York. However, a few years ago the DEC proposed to remove them from the list as part of an update of the State’s Wildlife Action plan, a process that stalled during the pandemic.
“It’s a reminder that the state should not remove the wolf from the state endangered species list,” Davis said. “That would be an unfortunate and unwise move, and the Adirondack Council and other groups will remind the DEC that they should keep the wolf listed as endangered in the state.”
Wolves in New York are also federally protected.
But wildlife advocates say that more needs to be done, including creating stricter coyote hunting laws and educating hunters about the possible presence of wolves in New York. They say hunters may accidentally be killing wolves that migrate into the state from outside populations.
Even the state’s species status assessment of the animal states that wolves could enter New York.
“There is considerable evidence of wolves crossing highways and areas used intensively by humans in both Europe and North America (Merrill and Mech 2000, reviewed by Boitani 2003), suggesting that wolves might be able to successfully navigate the fragmented New England and Adirondack landscape if provided protection from intentional killing,” states the wolf assessment prepared by the DEC.
Protect the Adirondacks noted two confirmed wolf sightings in New York in recent decades: In Day, in the southern Adirondacks, in 2001; and in Sterling, on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, in 2005. Both were killed by hunters.
Populations of wolves exist in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario and Quebec, but a fragmented landscape does separate them from the Adirondacks.
The state’s wildlife action plan states that the Adirondacks contain 6,000 square miles of wolf habitat, but wolves need to be socially accepted and that prey must exist for them to return.
There are currently no limits on how many coyotes a hunter may kill during the fall-through-spring season.
“They should be educating hunters and trappers,” Glowa said. “They should let them know that wolves are just 60 miles from the New York border. There is every likelihood that wolves are here. That’s what they should be telling hunters and trappers.”
Davis said if wolves came back they would have a positive impact on the environment.
Studies have shown the reintroduction and establishment of wolves in Yellowstone National Park has had a cascade of positive effects on the ecosystem, in part because they feed on ungulates (deer, moose and elk) which feed heavily on vegetation and carry ticks.
Punishment for the hunter?
Protect the Adirondacks wrote a letter to DEC about the wolf finding, asking the DEC to educate hunters and to investigate this recent case.
“This action is necessary to send a message to hunters that the taking of endangered gray wolves has legal consequences, and that hunters cannot simply shoot any large canid they encounter thinking it’s just a large coyote,” the letter said.
DEC told the Explorer it doesn’t anticipate taking law enforcement action in this incident.
“The hunter believed the animal was a coyote, as it was coyote hunting season,” they stated.
Weiss agreed the hunter shouldn’t be investigated because he thought he shot a coyote and willfully cooperated with wildlife advocates and brought it to the attention of the DEC after killing the animal.
“I think that this is an instance where the hunter did all the right things based on the information he had,” she said. “His state has not done a good job at all of educating hunters in the public that there could be wolves out there.”