The rustle in the brush was loud, so Brian Christman raised his muzzleloader for the deer he expected to appear. It was the end of the season in central New York, and Mr. Christman was hoping to take home a dollar.
Instead, he saw what looked like a large, white dog staring at him. Suddenly, Mr. Christman felt like the prey. He wore a scent that made him smell like a doe in heat. He lined up the animal in his environment and pulled the trigger.
“I thought it was a huge coyote,” Mr. Christman recently recalled.
It wasn’t. And the shooting would open a new, uncertain front in the wars over what could be America’s most beloved and reviled predator. Genetic analysis and other tests revealed that the 85-pound animal killed in December 2021 was actually a gray wolf that ate a wild diet. From all indications, it was not an escaped prisoner.
A cluster of passionate environmentalists in the region have long maintained that the animals find their way from Canada or the Great Lakes to the forests of the upper Northeast. For them, the wolf shooting near Cooperstown is evidence that government agencies must do more to seek out and protect the animals.
But when it comes to protecting wolves, apex predators that American settlers and their descendants nearly exterminated more than a century ago, controversy is never far away.
From afar, people often like the idea of a charismatic species like wolves returning to a landscape, said Dan Rosenblatt, who oversees endangered and non-game species at the New York City Department of Environmental Conservation. When you’re talking about them in someone’s backyard or where they love to hike, he said, “that level of support tends to go down pretty quickly.”
In the last 25 years there have been two other confirmed wolves in New York, according to the state. One of them, killed by a hunter in 2001, was probably wild. But establishing whether any large dogs spotted are actually wolves is made difficult by the particularly large coyotes in the region. According to scientists, their size is the result of historical, and possibly ongoing, interspecies tales.
Wolves, coyotes and dogs can all interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Northeast coyotes have a significant amount of wolf DNA — often around 20 percent, researchers found. This heritage gave rise to the name “wolves”, although many scientists dislike the term because it implies a separate species or something like a 50-50 hybrid.
Instead, “it’s a hot mess,” said Bridgett vonHoldt, a professor and geneticist at Princeton University who studies dogs, including gray wolves in the Great Lakes, eastern wolves in Canada, coyotes and dogs. “There’s a lot of genetics that’s shared between all these dogs, and that creates a lot of confusion for the public and challenges for management.”
Legally, the species matters: In New York, wolves are protected under state and federal law. Coyotes can be killed indefinitely from October to March.
Joseph Butera, a retired telephone operator with a home in the Adirondacks, climbed a hill in the woods, cupped his hands over his mouth, closed his eyes and howled. The answer he hoped to elicit from some nearby wolf never came, but he remained cheerful. Mr. Butera says he is certain wolves have returned to the Adirondacks and he is determined to prove it.
His love for the animals is not for the species in isolation. “Ecosystems don’t function properly without predators,” he said. In his opinion, wolves are what is needed to restore health and balance to the forest.
So Mr. Butera joined a growing number of wolf enthusiasts from the Northeast and beyond to raise awareness and gather evidence. One of the coalition’s central goals: Prevent returning wolves from being shot like coyotes.
It was a co-worker from Maine, John Glowa, who learned about photos of Mr. Christman’s hunt on social media. He told Mr. Butera, who called Mr. Christman and asked for tissue samples. The corpse was already at the taxidermist’s, so Mr. Butera sped off.
“The guy gave me a lung and a tongue,” Mr. Butera said. “And the rest is history.”
One sample, analyzed at Trent University in Ontario, came back 98 percent wolf. Another, sent to Dr. vonHoldt at Princeton, returned 99 percent.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation also took a sample, which it sent to a university that used, the state acknowledges, a less sophisticated method. That analysis concluded that the animal was 65 percent wolf with a coyote mother, and the animal was dominated by a coyote. The state eventually threw out those results and declared the animal a wolf, most likely from a Midwestern pack around the Great Lakes.
For Mr. Butera’s coalition, a major victory followed: New York state added language to its coyote hunting page warning that wolves are protected and asking hunters to “please take care to identify any large canids you encounter.” A separate page provides instructions on how to distinguish the species. Coyotes, for example, have more pointed snouts and longer ears.
Then, last month, a bill passed the New York legislature that would ban many hunting contests that award prizes to the person who kills the most animals, or the heaviest. One such annual contest awards $2,000 for the heaviest coyote. Gov. Kathy Hochul is reviewing the legislation, according to spokeswoman Katy Zielinski.
Lawyers identified 12 wolves south of the St. Lawrence Rivera natural barrier for packages 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 Vucetich, a professor at Michigan Technological University who has studied the behavior of wild wolves for decades.
Wolf defenders do not expect the state to search for the animals. Mr. Butera, walking, brings test tubes filled with alcohol and scans the ground for scat.
“Oh, look at the size of this!” he said on a recent afternoon, staring wide-eyed at a fresh specimen on a road in Franklin County. He measured and photographed the large (and, to any dog owner, definitely dog-like) poo before using disposable chopsticks to pick up a piece and insert it into the plastic tube for genetic testing. “This is very impressive,” he said, convinced it was produced by a wolf, due to its size and content. “This wins the lottery.”
Before the arrival of Europeans, wolves ranged from coast to coast across what is now the United States. Hunted close to extinction in the early 1900s, they have reclaimed territory in recent decades. While humans have been behind the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, other gains have been led by the animals themselves. A remnant population in Minnesota spread to neighboring states and continued to grow. More recently, wolves have established a breeding population in Northern California.
As their number 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 that decision, restoring protections.
Both Dr. Vucetich of Michigan Technological University and Dr. Rosenblatt of the New York Department of Environmental Protection say that, while occasional individual wolves may find their way to the Northeastern United States, there are no packs. They say those would have left ample evidence, such as moose kills, that simply did not materialize.
Activists accuse the state agency of turning a blind eye to wolf conservation because the animals are considered politically dangerous.
“Right now the state is operating in a virtual vacuum as far as wolves go,” said Christopher Amato, who spent several years as assistant commissioner for natural resources at the Department of Environmental Conservation and now directs conservation at Protect the Adirondacks, a nonprofit. a group “It’s no effort to find out what’s going on out there.”
But Dr. Rosenblatt said it’s about prioritizing species that are known to be present in the state.
“We have a lot of other environmental management issues that are a bit more poignant in front of us today that we have to deal with,” Dr. Rosenblatt said, citing 70 threatened or endangered species. “If time wasn’t a constraint, it wouldn’t be a headache at all,” he said.
Dr. vonHoldt at Princeton argued for a more holistic view of managing large, wild dogs. Instead of trying to separate wolves and coyotes into neat boxes, she said, officials should focus on the ecological services that can be provided by both — preying on overpopulated deer, for example.
Mr. Christman, the hunter who shot the New York wolf, was initially disappointed that the huge animal he carried out of the woods on his back was not a record coyote.
Because it is an endangered species, the mountain was confiscated by the state. But like many hunters, Mr. Christman sees himself as an environmentalist, and he’s glad he had a hand in revealing the wolf’s presence on the wild land he loves.
“For the public to be able to be aware of what’s around us and in our own beautiful state is the most important part,” he said.