Wolf sighting raises question: are they back?
Have wolves returned to Vermont after being extinct here for more than a century?
A state wildlife biologist says it’s possible, though unlikely.
Meanwhile, a Stowe woman is certain she spotted a wolf last month. And, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife recently received a report of a possible wolf sighting here.
Margaret Collins was driving along Weeks Hill Road one afternoon in early November when she saw what she believes was a wolf.
“It was loping down Week’s Hill Road and went up along a house,” Collins said. “I stopped my car and it looked me right in the eye, turned and walked into the woods.”
Collins frequently comes in contact with wildlife and is certain the animal wasn’t a coyote or a coyote-dog hybrid.
“I know what wolves look like,” Collins said. “Their legs are skinny and their gait is different (than coyotes). They have a different head shape and yellow eyes.”
The animal was unfazed when it noticed Collins, she said.
“It looked completely relaxed, which was disconcerting,” Collins said. “It didn’t seem frightened at all.”
If Collins did in fact see a wolf, it could mark the return of a species that’s been extinct in Vermont since the late 1800s.
At one point, wolves were the largest ranging mammals in North America. The gray wolf, similar in appearance to German shepherds or malamutes, dominated Vermont and other northeastern states.
They became extinct in Vermont in the late 19th century when woodlands were cleared for farmsteads, destroying much of their natural habitat. At the same time, the state, eager to protect livestock, offered a $20 bounty per wolf carcass.
Today, most wolf sightings in Vermont are actually misidentified coyotes, said Jason Batchelder, Stowe’s game warden.
“A large coyote can be the same size as a small- to medium-sized wolf,” Batchelder said. “It would be difficult to tell them apart.”
“Coyotes in the Northeast, particularly Vermont, are very large,” said fur-bearer biologist Chris Bernier of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Sometimes a quick glimpse of a coyote could lead someone to believe it’s a wolf.”
While it’s possible wolves could migrate to the Northeastern United States, it would be difficult. The nearest wolf habitats are found across the St. Lawrence River on the Algonquin peninsula.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts genetic analysis on the remains of animals thought to be wolves, which are on the endangered species list in every state but Alaska and Minnesota.
In 1997, a 72-pound hybrid was found in Glover. A genetic analysis found it was an Eastern wolf-coyote hybrid. Tests on its tissue and hair showed that the animal originated in the wild.
In 2006, a hunter shot a 92-pound animal that appeared to be a wolf.
“It was clearly not a coyote based on size,” Bernier said. “The genetic analysis showed that it was canis lupus, a gray wolf.”
But an analysis of the wolf’s DNA showed that it was probably bred domestically.
The mother’s DNA was from the Great Lakes wolf population, while the father’s DNA was from the Alaskan wolf population.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department said it was unlikely the animal was bred in the wild,” Bernier said. “Nonetheless, it was a purebred.”
Likewise, a 91-pound wolf shot in Shoreham in 1995 had been neutered, proof that it was an escaped domesticated animal.
The department maps reported wildlife sightings on a database showing locations and timeframes. While it receives frequent reports of mountain lion sightings, reported wolf sightings are relatively rare.
“It doesn’t mean people aren’t seeing them.” Bernier said. “It just means they aren’t reporting them.”
The department recently received a report of a possible wolf sighting in Stowe. The sighting is still under investigation and no information is available at this time.
About 25,000 miles of natural habitat suitable for wolves exists in the Northeastern United States, mostly in Maine and New Hampshire. Only a small section of the Northeast Kingdom fits the criteria for wolf habitat, namely that there be only one mile of road for each square mile of woodlands.
Bernier estimates Vermont could sustain roughly 100 wolves.
A wolf reintroduction program would have to be a multi-state effort to work, he said.
“Vermont can’t do it on its own,” Bernier said. “We just don’t have quantity of suitable habitat for a successful wolf introduction.”
Getting public support for such a program would take a lot of effort because of the danger wolves pose to livestock and the fear many people have toward the species.
If a plan were introduced, determining the exact genetic makeup of the wolf breed that inhabited the Northeast before European settlers came here could be difficult.
“Many wolves are hybrids that have bred with coyotes over the years,” Bernier said. “There are legal issues as well as wildlife issues. If we reintroduce wolves only to have genetics watered down, what have we accomplished?”