By Beth Daley Globe Staff March 5, 2008
A wild Eastern gray wolf roamed Western Massachusetts last fall before being shot to death on a farm, federal and state officials said yesterday. It was the first wolf confirmed in the state since hunters drove the species out more than 160 years ago.
US Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they used genetic tests to identify the animal, which was killed after it mauled more than a dozen lambs in Shelburne.
"To find a real one is pretty exciting," said Thomas J. Healy, special agent in charge of the agency's Northeast region. He said that the animal probably came from Canada or the Great Lakes region and that there is no indication the species is breeding in the state or in New England. "But what we don't know about this animal far outweighs what we do know," he said.
The male wolf was 2 to 3 years old and weighed 85 pounds, scientists said. It was be lieved to have been attacking livestock for about a month.
While wildlife officials and naturalists are disappointed that the wolf is dead, they said the identification gives them hope that one day the species may reestablish itself in the thick, dark forests of the Northeast.
Most other species wiped out in New England - such as moose, beaver, and deer - have rebounded, and some wildlife specialists say the return of wolves would restore balance to the ecosystem, possibly helping to hold in check soaring deer populations. The discovery may lead to renewed calls for the government to help wolves regain a footing in the region by better protecting habitat, or even reintroducing the animals.
Yesterday's announcement coincided with controversy over the Bush administration's decision to take populations of wolves off the federal endangered species list in the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes. An earlier government attempt to de-list Northeast wolves by considering them part of the robust Great Lakes population was turned back in court five years ago, and the species here remains fully protected.
Revered by many in the Northeast as a reminder of the region's wild legacy, wolves were not always appreciated. The powerful, stealthy predators ravaged livestock on early American farms and were hunted so aggressively that populations disappeared by the mid-1800s. The nearest established packs today are in Canada, and wild wolves are spotted only occasionally in New England. Federal officials said the last confirmed in the region was shot by a hunter in 1993 in Jackman, Maine, close to the Canadian border.
Most officials thought the animal terrorizing Franklin County sheep and lambs last fall was probably a large coyote, dog, or some sort of wolf-dog or wolf-coyote hybrid. State wildlife officials get dozens of calls a year from citizens convinced they saw or heard the howls of a wild wolf, but the animal either disappears before its identity is known or is found to be a hybrid or a dog. Sometimes, the animals are found to be escaped captive wolves.
After 13 sheep and lambs were killed and partially eaten on a Shelburne farm one day last October, biologists from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife visited the farm. They concluded that a domestic dog had probably attacked the flock, on grounds that a wolf would have eaten the entire carcasses and that the tracks did not appear to be those of a wolf. The biologists told the farmer he had the legal right to kill any animal attacking his flock, and it was killed the next day. more stories like this
MassWildlife officials examined the animal, which had lamb wool, bone fragments, and teeth in its stomach and looked like a wolf. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the Endangered Species Act, sent the animal to its national forensics lab in Ashland, Ore., for DNA testing, the only sure way to establish whether an animal is pure wolf. Those results came back this week.
Federal officials said the lab can also usually determine whether an animal, even one found in the wild, has been held in captivity by examining how rough its paws are and how shorn its nails, as well as the contents of its stomach. This animal showed no signs of having been captive, although officials said there is no way to know for sure.
The wolf most probably migrated from Canada. While single male wolves are known to range hundreds of miles, this animal's journey, crossing highways and making it so far south, was nothing short of amazing, biologists said.
"When these things occur I look down at area maps and see the major highways and the major obstacles an animal would have had to cross and say wow," said Peggy Struhsacker, a Vermont wolf consultant with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Federal officials declined to identify the person who shot the wolf. State officials said they will try to work with farmers to better protect their livestock if more wolves are found in the region.
While the federal government and states have the right to try to reintroduce the animals, New England states have so far opted not to do so.
"The more you start seeing individual animals, the more the potential for real recovery begins," said Patrick A. Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor who represented environmental groups in their successful 2003 bid to not have the Northeast wolf population lumped in with the Great Lakes population.
Still, the mystery of the Shelburne wolf is frustrating biologists. Had it just arrived in Massachusetts? Was it returning home? Why did it come to Massachusetts when there was ample food farther north?
"If it was looking for a friend, it had a long way to go," said Todd Fuller, a wildlife biologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who helped identify the wolf.
Beth Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org