Experts remain dubious about existence of wolves, mountain lions in the wilds of the Granite State
By JOHN KOZIOL
Wolves and mountain lions in New Hampshire? Maybe, but not conclusively, say local, state and federal wildlife experts.
The experts — Patrick Tate, a wildlife biologist and the furbearer project leader for the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department; Michael Amaral, biologist and endangered species supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; and Dave Erler, senior naturalist at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center — also agree that wolves will, and mountain lions may, one day return to New Hampshire.
And, the trio concurs, the way to spike reports of sightings of what had once been the top predators in the Granite State is to publish an article like this one.
But they also agree that despite numerous reports — as well as a popular thread on the winnipesaukee.com forum about possible wolves in Central New Hampshire — there’s been no tangible proof that either the wolf or mountain lion has come home, yet, and established resident breeding populations.
As for wolves, Tate, Amaral and Erler suggested that what some folks may be seeing or hearing is a wolf hybrid, which either escaped from its owner — it is legal to own a wolf-hybrid in New Hampshire provided that the animal is sterilized and kept penned up; there are 300,000 wolf hybrids in the U.S., Amaral said — or one that may have been brought here from another state.
More than likely, however, it’s a large coyote or, much less likely, a “lone wolf” far from home.
It’s also possible, said Tate, Amaral and Erler, that a mountain lion — whose ownership is permitted in some states — may have been released illegally in New Hampshire and was spotted here.
Despite a lot of speculation by the public, Tate recently noted with a mixture of befuddlement and exasperation that there is no conspiracy to suppress information about either animal, both of which were pushed out of their habitat by settlers who could ill afford to lose a valuable cow or sheep.
A history of the state’s fauna, Erler said, notes that the last wolf in New Hampshire was killed in 1895, but the book is less clear about the last mountain lion.
“There are wolves in … Canada,” Tate said, adding that one school of thought is that they could eventually make their way down to New Hampshire despite the challenge of crossing the St. Lawrence Seaway.
He believes that it is “highly likely” that wolves will return to the Granite State because there’s abundant food for them in the form of moose, deer and beaver. Tate monitors the beaver population and said wolves would help keep it in check, thereby providing a service to humans because beaver dams create a variety of roadway drainage problems.
Tate, who frequently lectures about coyotes, will put up side-by-side slides of a wolf and a coyote and then ask the audience to identify which is which.
“And nine times out of ten they’ll tell me they’re both wolves,” said Tate, who added that the Internet contributes to false identifications, as people who think they’ve seen a wolf or a mountain lion will sometimes go online to verify what they witnessed and then call Tate with what they think is a conclusive sighting.
As to mountain lions, “the public believes the department is trying to cover up that we have mountain lions in the state and we’ve even been called up and heard rumors that the state picked up a mountain lion that was killed, but they’re just rumors,” Tate said. “They’re not true.”
Of all the photos he’s seen of purported mountain lions, “to date all have been proven to be misidentified wildlife,” he said. “They’ve been found to be anything from coyotes to dogs. One person gave us raccoon scat and we did another test where the animal wasn’t even a predator species.”
There may be wolves and mountain lions in New Hampshire, but “We just haven’t found the physical evidence. We investigate but we’re skeptical because of the amount of misidentified wildlife.”
Tate expects that Fish and Game will get a bunch of calls about wolves and mountain lions after this article is printed.
“We’ll see an influx of calls for two weeks and everyone sees them but as soon as the publicity dies down, the reports go down,” he said.
Amaral, who is based in Concord, reviews photos of suspected wolves with a group of fellow biologists who’ve studied wolves in Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territory, “and in almost every case, that looks like a big, winter-coated coyote.”
Coyotes came to New Hampshire from the West and as they did, it is believed they interbred with wolves, producing a coyote that is about one-third larger than its western cousin, Erler said.
Apart from the fact that coyotes can breed with wolves — and to what is believed to be a very limited extent with domestic canines, resulting in the so-called “coydog” — the Catch-22 in trying to positively identify a wolf is that you need some of its DNA to verify that, genetically, it is a wolf, Amaral said.
That job gets a little trickier, he said, because there is only one federal laboratory that does wolf DNA testing and it’s located in the West, meaning it doesn’t have an extensive collection of DNA samples of eastern wolves.
In most cases, obtaining DNA from a suspected wolf means killing the animal, which, if it turns out to be a real wolf, is then a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
While it is legal to kill coyotes in the state, Amaral cautioned hunters to be careful.
“We need to absolutely dispel the notion of a trophy coyote,” he said. “Just get that out of your mind. If you think you’re taking a trophy coyote you might be killing a wolf.”
Erler, who was a naturalist with the National Park Service and University of Minnesota Extension Service before coming to SLNSC in 1979, said both Tate and Amaral are “optimistic” in their thinking that there might be wolves in New Hampshire.
Wolves, like coyotes and other canines, aren’t shy about leaving signs of their presence behind, said Erler, who during an interview last week at the SLNSC pointed to some coyote scat right in the middle of a trail.
Also, if there were wolves around, we’d see not only their droppings but the remains of what they’ve been eating, Erler said, whereas a mountain lion would be more fastidious in doing their business and would also secret their prey away. And, Erler added, you wouldn’t be seeing coyotes around because while they might occasionally breed with them, wolves do not like coyotes and will kill and eat them.
Wolves also kill differently than coyotes, Erler said.
A coyote will try to bring its prey down by pulling at its shoulder or throat, while wolves, he said, will “hamstring” an animal, biting through leg muscles to prevent its running away to safety.
It’s understandable that people who aren’t used to seeing wolves can easily mistake a coyote for a wolf and it’s also understandable, if not predictable, Erler said, that he will get reports about mountain lions after someone visits the SLNSC.
“We get calls all the time about mountain lions because we have them on exhibit,” Erler said. “You’re not more than two steps removed from somebody claiming they saw it themselves or knowing someone who did.”
For the record, the seven-year-old mountain lions at the SLNSC are brother and sister and came as orphans from Montana.
Asked about the public fascination with mountain lions and wolves, Erler said it was natural.
“I think people tend to be drawn to things that are a little dangerous, as long as it’s not an immediate threat,” he said. “And we have had enough time go by and we’re not an agricultural community on a subsistence level where a wolf or mountain lion taking down your dairy cow would be huge economically and the predator would be considered enemy number one.”
Also, the Internet and television channels like Animal Planet “allow people to see animals that they could never really appreciate before,” Erler said. “People understand the natural order of predation a lot better than in prior centuries.”
Amaral said wolves now coexist with humans in parts of Europe, including Italy and Portugal.
“So wolves can live with people, but can people live with wolves?” Amaral inquired. “If they see an interesting-looking animal and want to take a picture of it, we’re happy to look at it. But otherwise the best thing they can do is not to attract these animals to their homes and leave them alone.”
Nonetheless, the wolves are coming one day, Amaral said.
“The table has been set for a while. We’re just waiting for the dinner guest to arrive.”