By Mike Lynch
With a brown satchel slung over his shoulder and eyes scanning the ground, Joe Butera walked down a logging road in a remote section of the northern Adirondacks.
He was looking for canid tracks and scat, like he’d seen this past winter and spring.
“This is where I found three individual scats that were huge,” said the 70-year-old retired electrician, as he turned around at a gate and about 75 feet before an expanse of bog opened along the road.
Scats are important to him because he plans to have them tested for wolf DNA, part of his plan to provide evidence that the large canids live in the Adirondacks. A state and federally endangered species, wolves were eliminated from New York state in the 1800s after they were targeted by hunters and government bounties.
Butera is the leader of a small group called the Northeast Ecological Recovery Society, and has been advocating on wolves’ behalf for decades. In the past couple of years, he played a key role in the discovery of evidence that determined what was likely a wild wolf shot near Cooperstown.
He gathered tissue from the dead animal that was killed by a deer hunter in December 2021 in Cherry Valley in Otsego County. Butera then worked with other advocates to have its DNA tested by Trent and Princeton universities. Scientists ultimately concluded the animal was a gray wolf from the Great Lakes region, but little has been learned about the history of the animal, which has since been mounted by a taxidermist and put in storage at the New York State Museum.
But Butera and fellow wolf advocates haven’t forgotten about the wolf or the other wolves that may potentially disperse here.
In the months after Princeton University confirmed the Cherry Valley wolf, organizations throughout the Northeast, including Canada, banded together to form the Northeast Wolf Recovery Alliance.
The coalition’s core mission is to facilitate wolf recovery in the region by advocating for stricter coyote hunting rules, in addition to collecting more data and information on existing northeastern canids to look for a potential wolf presence in the northeastern U.S. By July, the coalition grew to include 15 organizations and 25 members, including Butera’s group.
“We realized that facilitating wolf recovery in the Northeast will require more than just one state’s efforts. It’s going to require a coalition of advocates in all the Northeast states,” said Renee Seacor, a carnivore conservation advocate for Project Coyote and the Rewilding Institute. She has been working as an unofficial coordinator for the alliance.
Members of the group participated in a video conference with New York Department of Environmental Conservation officials last fall shortly after DEC declared the Cherry Valley animal was a wolf. The group then followed up with letters in November and March recommending specific actions to facilitate wolf recovery in New York. But the group didn’t get responses until late July.
“It’s really astonishing to me that a public agency can simply receive a letter, two letters, on an issue of this level of significance, and just totally ignore them,” said Chris Amato, conservation director and counsel for Protect the Adirondacks. Amato served as DEC’s assistant commissioner for natural resources until 2011.
He said DEC officials were required to respond to correspondences when he worked there, but that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.
“It’s just like sending information into a black hole,” he said.
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The DEC didn’t respond the wolf advocates after the Explorer and Seacor inquired again.
“DEC will continue to explore ways to keep the hunting and trapping community informed and solicit input from the public on potential wolf sightings,” wrote Dan Rosenblatt, who heads the DEC’s wildlife diversity unit. “DEC will also perform genetic analyses on any new presumptive wolf samples to confirm species identity.”
The July 26 letter stated DEC is open to studies evaluating the genetics of canids in New York, but didn’t commit to such research.
Lacking confidence in the department, Amato has drafted legislation on behalf of the alliance to protect wolves that may be dispersing or living in New York. The hope is to find a bill sponsor next session, he said.
The measure, which mirrors requests made to DEC, would require the state to collect more data to determine if wolves are living in the state and significantly tighten coyote hunting rules, something wolf advocates say is necessary to protect relocating wolves.
“A biologist seeing a canid up close will probably know quickly which is a coyote which is a wolf, but looking at an animal 100 yards away, it’s hard for even an expert to gauge size,” said John Davis, rewilding advocate for the Adirondack Council. “It’s hard to discern one animal from another.”
The bill would also require the DEC to create a wolf status report for the legislature by January 2026, based on field research, genetic scat testing, trail camera footage and other methods of data collection decided by the DEC.
The bill would be in addition to legislation New York lawmakers have already passed that would ban coyote-killing contests. That bill had gone unsigned by Gov. Kathy Hochul as of late July.
A trail camera project?
In an interview with the Explorer, DEC wildlife officials said they are indeed taking steps to protect wolves by better educating hunters about the potential of encountering large canids that may be wolves and what to do afterward. They also pointed to the state’s acquisitions of Adirondack land that provides habitat for animals such as wolves.
In addition, DEC wildlife biologist and furbearer expert Mandy Watson said the department already has strict coyote regulations compared to other states and is working with other northeastern states to address ways to deal with large canids.
“We are continuing to work with the states to kind of develop a protocol for handling large canines in general, everything from reports from the public to reports from hunters and trappers,” she said.
The DEC is also looking into the possibility of doing a statewide trail camera study focused on large canids. This study would allow wildlife officials to be proactive in reacting to the discovery of wolves, as opposed to responding after an animal has been killed, according to the DEC.
“Ultimately, for us to be able to actively protect wolves in New York State, we’d have to know where they are,” Rosenblatt said. He noted there are already several camera studies underway and none have picked up any large canids. But a canid-specific study might be more successful because it would make use of bait attractive to such animals.
What is a wolf?
A key question that came up during the genetic analysis of the Cherry Valley wolf was: when is a canid considered a wolf?
The DEC commissioned genetic analysis by the Wildlife Genetics Institute at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania found that the Cherry Valley canid was 65.2% wolf and 34.8% coyote, but was birthed by an Eastern coyote.
Based on this information, the DEC said the animal was “closely identified as an Eastern coyote,” with a mix of coyote, wolf, and dog genetics.
That determination drew criticism because the majority of the animal’s DNA identified as wolf. It was also 85 pounds. The typical coyote weighs 35 to 45 pounds, according to the DEC.
The DEC changed course and called the animal a wolf after tests by Trent and Princeton universities concluded the animal to be a Great Lakes gray wolf.
Rosenblatt said in the future the DEC would likely go with Princeton because they are considered leaders in the canid field, but a larger genetic study of canids would likely have to be put through the state’s bidding process.
Still, the DNA makeup of wolves appears to be an open question.
“There isn’t any hard-and-fast rule that’s out there, as far as a percentage cut off per se,” Rosenblatt said. “It really comes down to what the animal looks like.”
Dave Mech, a senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey and founder of the International Wolf Center who is based in Minnesota, agreed there is no plain answer.
“There’s no biological standard that I know of that can answer that question,” Mech said.
He did say the evidence from tests indicated the Cherry Valley animal was a wild wolf.
In general, one of the issues is that canids interbreed and there isn’t a consensus about which wolf historically occupied New York, either the gray wolf that is found in northern Canada or the Eastern wolf that is found in Algonquin Park. Gray wolves are typically much larger than Eastern wolves, weighing 80 pounds or more. Eastern wolves fall within the range of Eastern coyotes and can be mistaken for them.
Genetic testing shows the Eastern coyote as a mix of wolf, coyote and dog.
Seacor said researchers have told her that they consider an animal a wolf if it has 80% wolf genes, but there’s still a lot of debate on the topic.
“I don’t think there’s a clear answer for both in the scientific community and within our wildlife agencies,” Seacor said.
There isn’t any publicly known definitive evidence that wolves are living in the Adirondacks.
A couple hundred Eastern wolves occupy Algonquin Park, 120 miles north of the New York border, while thousands of gray wolves live in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, 500-plus miles from the Adirondacks. Studies have shown that wolves could disperse that far.
“Even if coyotes were totally protected, I do believe that it would be many, many, many years before a wolf population could get established there,” said Mech, who grew up in New York.
He said the chances of a natural recolonization in New York is “very, very low” and pointed out that it took 25 years for wolves to start a new population in Colorado, even though the state is just south of colonies in Wyoming and Montana. He said the chance of them starting a population in Maine is greater.
But he said there is enough habitat in the Adirondacks for them, and likely enough food if they were to get here.
“Wolves can live anywhere where there’s any food if people don’t kill them,” he said. “Over in Europe, they live in the villages and towns.”
He said if a pack or two were to get established in the Adirondacks, they could go undetected for a little while in a more remote location, but “it wouldn’t take too long before they would be noticed.”
He anticipated that hunters or farmers would notice them because of prey or livestock attacks. Plus, they would start leaving tracks in the snow.
Three wolves have been killed in New York since 2001. And advocates say that at least 10 have been killed south of the St. Lawrence River since 1993, and those are only the known wolves.
Because of that, Butera and the Wolf Recovery Alliance members are armed with reasons to advocate on the behalf of large canids.
“I know they are coming back but not in large numbers,” Butera said, “and my job is to get them protection.”