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

The rustling in the brush was loud, so Brian Christman raised his muzzleloader for the deer he expected to emerge. It was the end of the season in central New York, and Mr. Christman was hoping to take home a buck.

Instead, he saw what looked like a big, white dog staring at him. Suddenly, Mr. Christman felt like the prey. He was wearing a scent that made him smell like a doe in heat. He lined up the animal in his scope and pulled the trigger.

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

It wasn’t. And the shot would open a new, uncertain front in the wars over what might be America’s most beloved and reviled predator. Genetic analysis and other testing revealed that the 85-pound animal killed in December 2021 was actually a gray wolf that had eaten a wild diet. By all indications, it was not an escaped captive.

A cluster of passionate conservationists in the region has long claimed that wolves are finding their way from Canada or the Great Lakes to the forests of the upper Northeast. To them, the one shot near Cooperstown is evidence that government agencies need to do more to seek out and safeguard the animals.

But when it comes to protecting wolves, apex predators that American settlers and their descendants nearly eradicated more than a century ago, controversy is never far.

Brian Christman near Cooperstown in December 2021.Credit…via Brian Christman

From a distance, people often like the idea of a charismatic species like wolves returning to a landscape, said Dan Rosenblatt, who oversees endangered and non-game species at New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. When you’re talking about them in someone’s backyard or where they love to hike, he said, “that level of support tends to go down pretty fast.”

There have been two other confirmed wolves in New York in the last 25 years, according to the state. One of them, killed by a hunter in 2001, was probably wild. But establishing whether any large canines spotted are actually wolves is complicated by the especially large coyotes in the region. According to scientists, their size is the result of historical, and possibly ongoing, interspecies hanky-panky.

Wolves, coyotes and dogs can all interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Northeastern coyotes have a significant amount of wolf DNA — often about 20 percent, researchers have found. This heritage has given rise to the name “coywolves,” though many scientists dislike the term on the grounds that it implies a distinct species or something like a 50-50 hybrid.

Instead, “it’s a hot mess,” said Bridgett vonHoldt, a professor and geneticist at Princeton University who studies canines, including gray wolves in the Great Lakes, eastern wolves in Canada, coyotes and dogs. “There’s a lot of genetics that are being shared between all these canines, and that creates a lot of confusion for the public and challenges for management.”

Legally, the species matters: In New York, wolves are protected under state and federal law. Coyotes can be killed without limit from October to March.

Joseph Butera, a retired telephone mechanic with a home in the Adirondacks, climbed a hill in the forest, cupped his hands around his mouth, closed his eyes and howled. The response he hoped to elicit from any nearby wolf never came, but he remained cheery. Mr. Butera says he’s certain that wolves have returned to the Adirondacks and he’s determined to prove it.

His love for the animals isn’t for the species in isolation. “Ecosystems don’t work properly without predators,” he said. In his view, wolves are what’s needed to restore health and balance to the forest.

So Mr. Butera has teamed up with a growing number of wolf enthusiasts from the Northeast and beyond to raise awareness and collect evidence. One of the coalition’s central goals: To prevent returning wolves from getting shot as coyotes.

It was a collaborator from Maine, John Glowa, who learned of photos from Mr. Christman’s hunt on social media. He told Mr. Butera, who called up Mr. Christman and asked for tissue samples. The body was already at the taxidermist, so Mr. Butera hustled over.

“The guy gave me lung and tongue,” Mr. Butera said. “And the rest is history.”

One sample, analyzed at Trent University in Ontario, came back 98 percent wolf. Another, sent to Dr. vonHoldt at Princeton, came back 99 percent.

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation had also taken a sample, which it sent to a university that used, the state acknowledges, a less sophisticated method. That analysis concluded the animal was 65 percent wolf with a coyote mother, and ruled the animal a coyote. The state ultimately discarded those results and declared the animal a wolf, most likely from a Midwestern pack around the Great Lakes.

For Mr. Butera’s coalition, an important victory followed: The state of New York added language to its coyote hunting page warning that wolves are protected and asking hunters to “please use care in identifying any large canids you encounter.” A separate page provides instructions on how to tell the species apart. Coyotes, for example, have pointier snouts and longer ears.

Then, last month, a bill passed the New York legislature that would ban many hunting competitions that award prizes to the person who kills the most animals, or the heaviest. One such annual contest gives $2,000 for the heaviest coyote. Gov. Kathy Hochul is reviewing the legislation, according to Katy Zielinski, a spokeswoman.

Advocates have identified 12 wolves south of the St. Lawrence River, a natural obstacle for packs in Canada, since 1993.

“I think it’s very plausible — that’s probably the best word, plausible — that there are other individuals in the Northeast,” said John Vucetich, a professor at Michigan Technological University who has studied the behavior of wild wolves for decades.

Wolf advocates aren’t waiting for the state to look for the animals. Mr. Butera, when out walking, brings test tubes filled with alcohol and scans the ground for scat.

“Whoa, look at the size of this!” he said on a recent afternoon, gazing wide-eyed at a fresh sample on a trail in Franklin County. He measured and photographed the large (and, to any dog owner, definitely canine-looking) poop before using disposable chopsticks to pick up a piece and insert it in the plastic tube for genetic testing. “This is very impressive,” he said, convinced that it was produced by a wolf, given its size and contents. “This is winning the lottery.”

Before the arrival of Europeans, wolves ranged coast to coast over what is now the United States. Hunted close to extinction by the early 1900s, they have been reclaiming territory in recent decades. While humans were behind the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, other gains have been led by the animals themselves. A remnant population in Minnesota spread to neighboring states and kept growing. More recently, wolves have established a breeding population in Northern California.

As their numbers have grown, so has the controversy over how to manage them. During the Trump administration, federal wildlife officials removed them from the Endangered Species list; a judge later overturned that decision, restoring protections.

Both Dr. Vucetich of Michigan Technological University and Dr. Rosenblatt of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation say that, while occasional individual wolves may find their way to the Northeastern United States, there are no packs. They say those would leave ample evidence, like moose kills, which simply hasn’t materialized.

Advocates accuse the state agency of turning a blind eye to wolf conservation because the animals are considered politically dangerous.

“Right now the state is operating in a factual vacuum as far as wolves go,” said Christopher Amato, who spent some years as an assistant commissioner of natural resources at the Department of Environmental Conservation and now directs conservation at Protect the Adirondacks, a nonprofit group. “There’s no effort made to find out what’s going on out there.”

But Dr. Rosenblatt said it’s a matter of prioritizing species that are known to be present in the state.

“We have a lot of other environmental management issues that are kind of more poignant in front of us today that we have to deal with,” said Dr. Rosenblatt, citing 70 threatened or endangered species. “If time wasn’t limiting, it wouldn’t be a headache at all,” he said.

Dr. vonHoldt at Princeton argued for a more holistic view around managing large, wild canines. Instead of trying to separate wolves and coyotes into neat boxes, she said, officials should focus on the ecological services that can be provided by both — preying on overpopulated deer, for example.

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

Since it’s an endangered species, the mount was confiscated by the state. But like many hunters, Mr. Christman sees himself as a conservationist, and he’s glad he had a hand in revealing the presence of a wolf on the wild land he loves.

“For the public to be able to be aware of what’s around us and in our own beautiful state is the most important part,” he said.

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