How mistaken identity and one shot uncovered a star predator far from home

The brush rustle was noisy, so Brian Christman raised the string loader for the deer he was expecting to show up. It was the end of the season in central New York, and Mr. Christman was hoping for a dollar.

Instead, he saw what looked like a large white dog staring at him. Suddenly, Mr. Christmann felt like the prey. He wore a scent that made him smell like a female in heat. He lined up the animal in his binoculars 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 may be America’s most beloved and hated predator. Genetic analysis and other testing revealed that the 85-pound animal killed in December 2021 was actually a gray wolf that ate a wild diet. By all indications, he was not an escaped prisoner.

A group of conservationists in the region has long claimed that wolves find their way from Canada or the Great Lakes into the forests of the Upper Northeast. For them, the one-shot near Cooperstown is evidence that government agencies need to do more to search for and protect the animals.

But when it comes to protecting wolves, predators that were nearly eradicated by American settlers and their descendants more than a century ago, the debate is never far off.

Brian Christman near Cooperstown in December…Via Brian Christman

People often like the idea of ​​charismatic species like wolves returning to landscapes from a distance, said Dan Rosenblatt, who oversees endangered and game-non-game species at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. When you’re talking about them in someone’s backyard or where they like to hang out, he said, “That level of support tends to drop pretty quickly.”

There have been two confirmed coyotes in New York in the past 25 years, according to the state. One of them was killed by a poacher in 2001, and it may have been wild. But determining whether any large canines spotted are actually coyotes is complicated by the particularly large coyotes in the area. According to the scientists, its size is a historical, and possibly ongoing, consequence among the scattered species.

Wolves, coyotes, and dogs can mate and produce fertile offspring. Researchers have found that northeastern coyotes have a significant amount of wolf DNA — often around 20 percent. This heritage has given rise to the name “wolfhounds,” although many scholars dislike the term on the grounds that it denotes a distinct species or something like a 50-50 hybrid.

Instead, “It’s a hot mess,” said Bridget von Holdt, a professor and geneticist at Princeton University who studies canines, including gray wolves in the Great Lakes, eastern Canada, wolves and dogs. “There are a lot of genes that are shared among all of these canines, and this creates a lot of confusion for the public and challenges for management.”

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

Joseph Butera, a retired telephone mechanic with a home in the Adirondacks, climbed a hill in the woods, wrapped his hands around his mouth, closed his eyes and howled. The reply he was hoping to get didn’t come from any nearby wolf, but he remained elated. Mr. Butera says he’s sure the wolves will return to the Adirondacks and he’s determined to prove it.

His love of animals is not for the solitary species. “Ecosystems don’t function properly without predators,” he said. In his opinion, wolves are what we need to restore health and balance in the forest.

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

It was a collaborator from Maine, John Gloa, who learned of the photos from Mr. Christman’s social media stalking. He told Mr. Butera, who called Mr. Christmann and asked for tissue samples. The body was already at the embalmer, so Mr. Butera moved.

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

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

The New York Department of Conservation also took a sample, which it sent to a university that used, the state admits, a less sophisticated method. This analysis concluded that the animal was 65 percent wolf with a mother wolf, and the animal was judged to be a wolf. The state eventually ignored these findings and declared the animal a coyote, most likely from a Midwestern herd around the Great Lakes.

Butera’s coalition, an important victory followed: New York State added language to its wolf hunting page warning that wolves are protected and asking hunters to “please use caution in identifying any large dog you encounter.” a separate page Provides guidance on how to distinguish between species. Wolves, for example, have tapering noses and longer ears.

Then, last month, the New York legislature passed a bill banning many hunting contests that give prizes to the person who kills the most animals, or heaviest. One of these annual competitions awards $2,000 to the heaviest wolf. Gov. spokeswoman Katie Zielinski said Gov. Kathy Hochul has reviewed the legislation.

Select Defenders 12 wolves south of the St. Lawrence Rivera natural packaging snag 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 Vucic, a professor at Michigan Technological University who has studied wild wolf behavior for decades.

Wolf advocates don’t wait for the state to hunt animals. When Mr. Butera walks outside, he brings test tubes filled with alcohol and checks the floor for feces.

“Whoa, look at the size of this!” He said one afternoon recently, staring wide-eyed at a fresh specimen on a driveway in Franklin County. He measured and photographed a large poop (and for any dog ​​owner sure looks like a dog) before using disposable chopsticks to pick up a piece and insert it into the plastic tube for genetic testing. “It’s very impressive,” he said, convinced that the wolf was his own creation, given its size and contents. “This is winning the lottery.”

Before the arrival of Europeans, wolves stretched from coast to coast over what is now the United States. Hunted to near extinction by the early 20th century, they have been reclaiming territory in recent decades. While humans are behind the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, the animals themselves have led other gains. The remaining population in Minnesota spread to neighboring states and continued to grow. Recently, the wolves established a breeding population in Northern California.

As their numbers grew, so did the debate over how to manage them. During the Trump administration, federal wildlife officials removed it from the endangered species list; A judge later overturned that decision, reinstating the protections.

Both Dr. Vucetich of Michigan Technological University and Dr. Rosenblatt of the New York Department of Conservation say that while individual wolves may find their way into the northeastern United States, there are no packs. They say those would leave ample clues, such as killing moose, which was not achieved.

Human rights advocates accuse the state agency of turning a blind eye to protecting wolves because the animals are considered politically dangerous.

said Christopher Amato, who spent several years as assistant commissioner for natural resources in the Department of Environmental Conservation and now directs protections at Protect the Adirondacks, a nonprofit group. “No effort has been made to find out what’s going on there.”

But Dr. Rosenblatt said it was a matter of prioritizing species known to be found 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, referring to the 70 species that are threatened or endangered. He said, “If time was not limited, there would be no headache at all.”

Dr. von Holdt of Princeton University has advocated a more holistic view of the management of large wild canines. Rather than trying to separate wolves and coyotes into tidy boxes, she said, officials should focus on the environmental services both can provide — preying on densely populated deer, for example.

Mr. Christmann, the hunter who shot the New York wolf, was initially disappointed that the massive animal he had carried out of the woods on his back was not a record-breaking wolf.

Since it is an endangered species, the mountain was confiscated by the state. But like many hunters, Mr. Christman sees himself as a conservationist, and is thrilled to have a hand in revealing the presence of coyote on the wild land he loves.

“For the audience to be aware of our surroundings and our beautiful state is the most important part,” he said.