The rustling in the bushes was loud, so Brian Christman raised his muzzleloader to look for the deer he expected to show up. It was the end of the season in central New York, and Mr. Christman hopes to bring home the money.
Instead, he saw what appeared to be a large white dog staring at him. Suddenly, Mr. Christman felt like prey. She wore a scent that made her smell like a doe in heat. He lined up the beast in his binoculars and pulled the trigger.
“I thought it was a big coyote,” recalls Mr. Christman recently.
That does not. And that shot will open up an uncertain new front in the war over what may be America's most beloved and reviled predator. Genetic analysis and other testing revealed that the 85-pound animal that was killed in December 2021 was actually a gray wolf eating wild food. By all indications, it wasn't an escaped prisoner.
A group of passionate conservationists in the region have long claimed the animals find their way from Canada or the Great Lakes into the forests of the upper Northeast. To them, the wolf shooting near Cooperstown is proof that government agencies need to do more to locate and protect these animals.
But when it comes to protecting the wolf, an apex predator nearly exterminated by American settlers and their descendants more than a century ago, controversy is never far away.
From a distance, people often like the idea of a charismatic, wolf-like species returning to the landscape, says Dan Rosenblatt, who oversees endangered and non-game species at New York's Department of Environmental Conservation. When you talk about them in someone's backyard or somewhere they like to hike, he says, “those support levels tend to drop 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, may be wild. But determining whether the large visible canines are really wolves is complicated by the region's enormous coyotes. According to scientists, their size is a result of historical, and possibly ongoing, interspecies handkerchiefs.
Wolves, coyotes and dogs can all interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Northeastern coyotes have significant amounts of wolf DNA — often around 20 percent, the researchers found. This heritage has given rise to the name “coywolves”, although many scientists dislike the term because it implies a different species or something like a 50-50 hybrid.
Instead, “it's a hot mess,” says Bridgett von Holdt, a professor and geneticist at Princeton University who studies dogs, including the gray wolf in the Great Lakes, eastern wolf in Canada, coyotes and canines. “There's a lot of genetics shared between all these dogs, and it's created a lot of confusion for the public and a challenge for management.”
Legally, the species matters: In New York, wolves are protected by state and federal laws. Coyotes can be killed indefinitely from October to March.
Joseph Butera, a retired telephone mechanic with a home in the Adirondacks, climbed a hill in the woods, cupped his hands around his mouth, closed his eyes, and howled. The response he expected from the nearby wolves never came, but he remained cheerful. Mr Butera says he believes that wolves have returned to the Adirondacks and he is determined to prove it.
His love for animals is not for isolated species. “Ecosystems don't function properly without predators,” he said. In his view, wolves were needed to restore the forest's health and balance.
So Mr Butera has been working with a growing number of wolf enthusiasts from the Northeast and beyond to raise awareness and gather evidence. One of the coalition's main goals: To prevent returning wolves from being shot as coyotes.
It was a collaborator from Maine, John Glowa, who knew of photos from Mr. Hunt's hunt. Christian on social media. He alerted Mr Butera, who called Mr Christman and asked for a tissue sample. The body was already in the taxidermist, so Pak Butera rushed over.
“That man gave me a lung and a tongue,” said Pak Butera. “And the rest is history.”
One sample, analyzed at Trent University in Ontario, yielded 98 percent wolves. The others, sent to Dr. vonHoldt at Princeton, 99 percent return.
New York's Department of Environmental Conservation has also taken samples, which were sent to universities using less sophisticated, state-approved methods. The analysis concluded that the animal was 65 percent wolf with a coyote parent, and ruled the animal as a coyote. The state eventually discarded the results and declared the animal to be a wolf, most likely from a Midwestern group around the Great Lakes.
For Mr Butera's coalition, a notable victory followed: The state of New York added language to its coyote hunting pages warning that wolves are protected and asking hunters to “please use caution in identifying any large dogs you encounter.” A separate page provide instructions on how to differentiate the species. Coyotes, for example, have a more pointed muzzle and longer ears.
Then, last month, a bill was passed by the New York legislature that would ban many hunting competitions that award prizes to the person who kills the most, or heaviest, animals. One such annual contest awards $2,000 for the heaviest coyote. Governor Kathy Hochul is reviewing the legislation, according to Katy Zielinski, a spokeswoman.
Advocates have identified 12 wolves south of the St. Lawrencenatural constraints for packaging in Canada, since 1993.
“I think it makes a lot of sense — that's probably the best word, it makes sense — that there are other individuals in the Northeast,” said John Vucetich, a professor at Michigan Technological University who has studied wild wolf behavior for decades.
Wolf advocates don't wait for the state to find animals. Mr. Butera, on a walk, took a test tube filled with alcohol with him and scanned the ground for excrement.
“Whoa, look at the size!” he said one recent afternoon, staring wide-eyed at a fresh sample on a trail in Franklin County. He measured and photographed the large poop (and, to any dog owner, it must have looked like a dog) before using disposable chopsticks to scoop up a piece and place it in a plastic tube for genetic testing. “It's very impressive,” he said, convinced that it was made by wolves, given its size and content. “It won the lottery.”
Before the arrival of Europeans, wolves roamed from coast to coast in what is now the United States. Hunted to near extinction in the early 1900s, they have reclaimed territory in recent decades. While humans are behind the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, other gains are led by the animals themselves. The population remaining in Minnesota is spreading to neighboring states and growing. More recently, wolves have established a breeding population in Northern California.
As their numbers grew, so did 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 the decision, restoring protection.
OK Dr. Vucetich of Michigan Technological University and Dr. Rosenblatt of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation said that, while individual wolves can occasionally find their way into the Northeastern United States, neither are groups. They said it would leave a lot of evidence, such as the killing of a deer, that has yet to materialize.
Advocates accuse state agencies of turning a blind eye to wolf conservation because the animals are deemed politically dangerous.
“Right now the country is operating in a factual vacuum as far as wolves go,” said Christopher Amato, who spent several years as assistant commissioner of natural resources in the Department of Environmental Conservation and now leads conservation at Protect the Adirondacks, a nonprofit. group. “No attempt was made to find out what was going on out there.”
But Dr. Rosenblatt said it was a matter of prioritizing the species known to be present in the state.
“We have many other, more heartbreaking environmental management issues ahead of us today that we must address,” said Dr. Rosenblatt, citing 70 species that are threatened or endangered. “If time wasn't the limit, it wouldn't be a headache at all,” he said.
Dr. vonHoldt at Princeton argues for a more holistic view around managing large wild canines. Instead of trying to separate wolves and coyotes into neat boxes, he said, officials should focus on the ecological services both can provide—preying on overpopulated deer, for example.
Mr. Christman, the hunter who shot the New York wolf, was initially dismayed that the large animal he hauled out of the woods on his back was not a record-breaking coyote.
Because it is an endangered species, the mountain was confiscated by the state. But like many hunters, Mr. Christman sees himself as a conservationist, and he is glad he had a hand in exposing the existence of wolves in the wild land he loves.
“To let people know what's around us and our own beautiful state is the most important part,” he said.