On September 21st, 2022, after a second independent DNA study confirmed that the wolf killed outside of Cooperstown, in Otsego County, NY, was really a wolf, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) reversed course and announced the wolf was indeed a wolf.
DEC had been calling the Cooperstown wolf a coyote since it examined the dead animal in December 2021 and conducted a DNA study in early 2022. DEC publicly called the wolf a coyote in July in many news reports, after the release of an independent DNA study by Trent University in Canada, organized by the Northeast Ecological Recovery Society (NERS).
The Trent University DNA analysis found that the Cooperstown wolf had 98% wolf genes.
In July, the DEC cited its own DNA study as proof that the wolf was a coyote. The DEC used this DNA study in its press comments at the time. Mike Lynch at the Adirondack Explorer reported in July that the DEC had a DNA analysis by the Wildlife Genetics Institute at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania that showed the Cooperstown wolf was “closely identified as an Eastern coyote, with a mix of coyote, wolf, and dog genetics.”
WTEN News 10 in Albany reported a quote from Lori Severino, a DEC spokesperson, saying “Initial DNA analysis conducted determined the wild canid to be most closely identified as an eastern coyote.”
In July, the DEC refused to release its DNA study to the public. Protect the Adirondacks, and other groups and media outlets, submitted Freedom of Information requests for DEC’s DNA study. DEC sent out letters in September that this study would not be available until October at the earliest.
The second DNA study, again organized by NERS, and this time performed by Princeton University, found that the Cooperstown wolf had 96.2% wolf DNA. Once that report was out, the DEC decided to release its DNA study from East Stroudsburg University to Mike Lynch who was reporting on the second independent DNA study.
It turns out that the original DEC DNA study had in fact concluded the Cooperstown wolf was 65.2% wolf and 34.8% coyote. The East Stroudsburg University DNA study, based on samples from the dead Cooperstown wolf, was submitted to the DEC on April 13, 2022.
Why did the DEC sit on this report for five full months before making it public? A bigger mystery is why did the DEC say publicly that the Cooperstown wolf was a coyote when it had DNA analysis that said it was 65.2% wolf?
After the Princeton DNA study, the DEC released the following statement on September 23rd:
“The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) today confirmed an animal taken by a hunter in Cherry Valley, Otsego County, during the 2021 coyote hunting season was a wolf. As part of DEC’s methodical, scientific assessment to ensure the accuracy of the species identification of the animal taken by the licensed hunter, DEC’s review of DNA test results returned this week allowed for a final determination that this animal was a wolf.
“After initial DNA analysis completed this summer determined the wild canid to be most closely identified as an Eastern coyote, DNA submitted voluntarily by the hunter was sent for further analysis to Dr. Bridgett vonHoldt, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University as part of a joint research effort by multiple parties. DEC experts reviewed the vonHoldt DNA test results on Sept. 21 and determined the species is likely a male wolf. DEC is also evaluating additional steps to determine whether further research is needed.
“This is the third confirmed wolf identified in the wild in New York in the past 25 years. Wolves are, and continue to be, protected in New York State as an endangered species.
“At this time, the origin of this Otsego animal is unknown. DNA tests indicate the animal is most likely from the Great Lakes population of wolves, which currently have no established populations in any adjacent state and no known wolves closer than Michigan. It is unknown if this animal was a wild animal that moved into New York or if this was a captive-bred animal that was released or escaped. Captive wolves released into the wild in New York have been documented in the past.
“New York is home to a well-established, self-sustaining population of Eastern coyotes. Eastern coyotes are distinguished from coyotes west of the Mississippi by being slightly larger in size (about 40 pounds, on average) and having a mix of coyote, wolf, and dog ancestry. Wolves are larger than both. Eastern coyotes are found throughout New York and populations are stable in most regions. At present, the natural recolonization of wolves in New York is unlikely. For a pack of wolves to be established in the state, breeding populations of female wolves would need to return to the state and breed with male wolves which typically roam farther from their packs. DEC will monitor for additional signs of wolf presence and encourages the public to report sightings of unusually large animals. In addition, DEC will continue to provide information to hunters and trappers on ways to distinguish between coyotes and wolves.
“The siting of this wolf is a testament to New York State’s record of protecting habitat which has greatly benefited wildlife populations, as noted with the return of moose and the Great Lakes piping plover to suitable habitat within the state. DEC will continue to work with federal, state and local partners to advance additional conservation actions to continue to build a network of protected landscapes that provide habitat for threatened and endangered species in the state.
“The most recent DNA results provided by Dr. vonHoldt and the earlier DNA results provided by Dr. Jane Huffman with the Wildlife Genetics Institute can be found at DEC’s website.”
Wolves have been documented traveling into New York State in the past two decades. The coyotes that dominate New York are a hybrid of wolves and coyotes, with many animals having a majority of wolf genes. Over the last 30 years, coyotes in the Adirondack Park have exhibited a number of wolf-like behaviors, such as forming packs, at least on a temporary basis. Deer kills, especially on frozen lakes in the winter by coyote packs are a regular occurrence. Signs of deer kills are frequent on frozen lakes in the Adirondacks.
In addition to acknowledging officially that the Cooperstown wolf, the DEC needs to retain gray wolves on the NYS Endangered Species Act list. DEC states that wolves are “extirpated” species in the state.
DEC says it will start to provide information to hunters. DEC has updated its website with information about the differences between a wolf and coyote, using language similar to the Maine Fish and Game website, but much more needs to be done. The DEC website reads:
“Wolf vs Coyote: Large coyotes (50+ pounds) have been reported in New York, but they are uncommon. Any canid 50 pounds or greater may be a wolf, wolf-hybrid, or domestic dog. New York law protects wolves from hunting or trapping. It is also illegal to indiscriminately shoot domestic dogs or wolf-hybrids. We have documented a few wolves and wolf hybrids over the last 20 years in New York. In most cases, we believe these animals were released from captivity. However, wild wolves are present in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario and it is possible for these animals to travel into New York. Please use care in identifying any large canids you encounter. If you suspect you have a canine in a trap that is over 4.5 ft. in length (tip of nose to tip of tail) and is over 50 pounds, contact NYSDEC law enforcement (1-844-332-3267) before dispatching the animal.”
The social media pictures of the dead Cooperstown wolf and the hunter show that the wolf was shot with a muzzleloaded rifle with a scope. The wolf was shot by the hunter who was probably out deer hunting during the late muzzleloader season that follows the regular deer season in many parts of New York. In the Adirondacks, muzzleloader hunting precedes the regular deer season. Deer hunters are expected to look for antlers and training courses teach them to estimate the points and size of the antlers before shooting. The hunter must have looked at the Cooperstown wolf close-up through his scope for at least a couple of seconds before he shot it.
Had the DEC provided hunters in NYS with information on wolves, wolf-coyote identification, or the Endangered Species Act protections, that may have caused this hunter to see that he had a protected wolf in his scope, not a coyote, and not to shoot it, to let the wolf go by, and to contact the DEC about its location. All hunters in NYS should be given information about the possible presence of wolves in the state as part of the materials they receive with their hunting licenses.
The issue of wolves recolonizing historic habitat in the Adirondack Park, with its vast forested landscape, or other parts of New York State with large agricultural and forested areas, will not go away. Longstanding research has shown that many coyotes in New York carry wolf genes.
This research has shown the amounts of wolf genes in these animals is rising. At what point, and what percentage of DNA, or with what types of DNA, is a coyote legally a wolf? These are important, and complicated, questions for the DEC to reckon with.
Unfortunately, these questions seem ill-suited for the current DEC leadership. DEC’s actions around the Cooperstown wolf raise many questions about how the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation is dealing with this issue. This episode shows an agency that came up short in disclosing information to the public. This episode shows a DEC that needs to improve its game when it comes to openness and transparency. This episode shows an agency willfully misleading the public and stonewalling public requests for information. This episode shows an agency where political concerns trumped science.
Most of all, this episode shows an agency that did not do its job to protect a wild animal in New York State under the Endangered Species Act. The Cooperstown wolf never enjoyed its rightful protections accorded to it under New York State law.
Illustrations, from above: size comparison of a coyote vs. a wolf track; and wolf courtesy Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.