A 92-pound (41.82 kg) canine shot in Troy last October may be the first confirmed wolf to roam the Green Mountains in more than a century, Vermont officials said Tuesday.
A yearlong investigation into the genetic makeup of the large animal, initially mistaken for a coyote, found “a substantial amount of wolf ancestry,” according to John Austin of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
“We’re trying to be cautious in how we interpret these results,” Austin said Tuesday. “What the information tells us is that the genetic composition, the size of animal … suggests it’s largely of wolf ancestry.”
The animal, shot by a farmer in a Vermont town along the Canadian border Oct. 1, 2006, could well have been a wolf. But scientists say it likely wasn’t wild. Genetic tests conducted at four laboratories, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s forensics laboratory in Ashland, Ore., traced the ancestry of the animal to two separate and geographically distinct populations of wolves. The animal, according to lab conclusions, was almost certainly bred in captivity.
Peggy Struhsacker, a wolf specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, examined the animal after it was shot last October and said Tuesday that laboratory testing supported her initial hunches.
“I looked at all the traits and characteristics of it and believed it was possibly a full wolf or a high-percentage animal because it had all physical characteristics,” Struhsacker said. “That being said, it had too many other characteristics that made me feel it wasn’t a wild wolf.”
The animal’s shoddy coat, uniform nail wear and well-fed gut, she said, all indicated the canine was a domestic pet.
The animal’s origins have significant implications for the state. If the animal was indeed a wild wolf migrating from an existing pack in southern Quebec, it would signal the reappearance of an animal extirpated from the state in the 1800s.
“We’re really interested in trying to determine the origin of large canids when they turn up in New England,” said Kim Royar, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. “If it turns out, like the lab suggested, that this animal is of domestic origin, then basically we would assume it had been released into the wild by somebody who had bred it for sale. What we’re interested in is documenting whether there is movement of wolves from wild populations … in eastern Canada down to New England.”
Royar said the state has no evidence that such movement has occurred, though reports of wild wolves in Maine and New Hampshire suggest wolf populations may be crossing into the northeastern United States.
Michael Amaral, endangered species specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the discovery should signal a warning to hunters in the state. The wolf is protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and hunters who shoot them, mistakenly or intentionally, he said, face stiff fines.
“Gray wolves, even if they are of captive origin, are a protected species,” Amaral said. “I think the important message for Vermont’s hunters is it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that wolves can get to northern Vermont from existing wolf populations in Canada.”
Charlie Hammond, the man who shot the wolf in Troy, won’t be prosecuted, according to Amaral.
“Because it appears that this animal was of domestic origin … and other circumstances, we are not prosecuting in this case,” Amaral said.
Steve Mcleod is executive director of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, an organization that lobbies on behalf of hunters, farmers and other groups opposed to the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Vermont. He said a resurgence of the animal in the state would signal the decline of deer populations.
“There would be a deer slaughter that would result,” Mcleod said. “The white tail deer is the signature species of Vermont and it would really drastically change the balance of deer in the state over time.”
Austin said the department will have to pinpoint the origin and genetic makeup of the animal before it can fully understand the implications the discovery has for Vermont.
“What we haven’t done is ask an objective wildlife genetics expert … to help us understand what all this information now means to us,” Austin said. “What are the implications of that to wildlife conservation in Vermont? We’re going to work hard to get those answers.”