By Stephen Williams
Environmental organizations are fighting efforts to take the gray wolf off the federal endangered species list, thinking it could some day return to the Adirondacks.
Though perhaps it already has.
In December 2001, a hunter in the northern Saratoga County town of Day killed what he thought was a coyote but was later determined to be a wolf — the first confirmed wolf killing in the Adirondacks in more than 100 years.
A decade later, a New York State Museum study proved through bone analysis of its diet that the wolf was wild, not a former pet or captive turned loose or escaped. Most likely, the young male had crossed the St. Lawrence River from Ontario.
Regardless of where that one came from, the Adirondack Park’s rural communities are full of folks who believe wolves live out in the deep woods.
“There’s certainly anecdotal evidence of wolves being seen in the Adirondacks,” said Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild, who has photographed possible wolf tracks on his property in Keene.
A matter of time?
The state Department of Environmental Conservation, however, says neither wolves nor cougars — another species people claim to see — currently live in the mountains.
But with wolf populations recovering in the western United States and Canada, the chances that intrepid individuals will strike out for new territory and end up in Adirondack forests are increasing, advocates say.
That’s why regional environmental groups are lobbying against a current U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to take the gray wolf off the endangered species list.
“The proposed delisting would virtually prevent gray wolves from naturally finding their way back to the Adirondack Park, a place they once roamed,” said William C. Janeway, executive director of The Adirondack Council.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in June proposed lifting the canine predator’s endangered status nationally, based on species recoveries in the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes states. The move would shift responsibility for managing local populations to the states.
“From the moment a species requires the protection of the Endangered Species Act, our goal is to work with our partners to address the threats it faces and ensure its recovery,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said in announcing the proposal. “An exhaustive review of the latest scientific and taxonomic information shows that we have accomplished that goal with the gray wolf.”
Wolves were nearly extinct in the continental U.S. only 40 years ago because of hunting, loss of forest habitat and a decline in prey species such as caribou, moose and elk.
Today, there are at least 6,100 gray wolves in the contiguous United States, with an estimate of 1,674 in the Northern Rocky Mountains and 4,432 in the Western Great Lakes, according to the FWS.
This winter, however, a peer scientific review of the proposed delisting faulted the science used.
“Information contrary to the proposed delisting is discounted whereas that which supports the rule . . . are accepted uncritically,” concluded the review organized by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The proposed federal rule would lift federal protections across the country. That would allow “taking” of the species and drop existing requirements to protect their critical habitat.
Among the contentions of the Fish and Wildlife Service is that the wolves that once roamed the Adirondacks were the “Eastern wolf,” an extinct species that is different from the gray wolf. The peer review panel, however, maintains there is no scientifically justified difference between the Eastern and gray wolves, and that efforts to restore gray wolves to the East should continue.
The criticisms led to the decision in February to reopen the delisting’s public-comment period. The comment period ended Thursday.
The Northeast Wolf Coalition, whose members include several Adirondack groups, was among those submitting comments, calling not for delisting but for expanded recovery efforts.
“We urge FWS to develop a ‘Northeastern Wolf Recovery Plan’ that includes continued legal protection in order to enhance natural recolonization of wolves to the Northeast,” the coalition wrote on March 20.
Some congressmen, including Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, have also been critical of delisting the species.
“It would stifle gray wolf recovery at a time when conservation gains are only nascent in the Pacific Northwest and recovery has yet to begin in California, Colorado, Utah and the Northeast, where scientists have identified a significant amount of suitable habitat that would support wolf populations,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said in a letter signed by Tonko and 72 other members of Congress.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said a final decision on the gray wolf’s status will be made by the end of 2014.
The proposal is reopening an emotional debate that has occurred for decades about whether to try to restore the native wolf, the last of which was killed by a trapper in Hamilton County in 1893.
“I’ve read where parts of the Adirondacks are among the most sparsely populated in the United States, which is ideal for wolves,” said Steve Hall, co-owner of the Adirondack Wildlife Refuse and Rehabilitation Center in Wilmington, which keeps two wolves for education purposes.
What isn’t ideal, Hall said, is that deer density in the Adirondacks is low, making it more likely human pets would be at risk. But wolf attacks on humans, he said, are almost unheard of.
“We live in a country where people love wolves or hate wolves, without knowing anything about them,” Hall said.
Advocates believe wolves are needed as a top predator in a natural ecosystem that includes large prey species such as beaver, deer and now moose.
Opponents point out that the coyote, unknown in the Adirondacks before the 1950s, performs the top predator role in today’s forests. Studies have found wolf DNA in Eastern coyotes, apparently from past interbreeding.
Adult Eastern coyotes generally weigh only 35 to 40 pounds, half the size of a full-grown wolf. Coyotes can legally be hunted in New York.
The conservation group Defenders of Wildlife tried to build public support for managed restoration of wolves during the 1990s, but its own study ultimately concluded that relocating wolves from elsewhere was likely to fail.
Now the question is whether wolves might return naturally, through migrations from areas that have healthy populations.
There’s a wolf pack in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario that could be a source for Adirondack wolves.
“The pack’s growing and dispersing, and it’s only 400 miles away, well within travel range of an individual wolf,” said Adironack Wild’s Plumley.
While the wolf shot in Day is the only confirmed instance in the Adirondacks, lone wolves have also been killed by hunters in the past decade in Vermont and Maine.
Defenders of Wildlife, which is based in Washington, D.C., maintains that wolves could successfully return on their own to the Northeast.
Millions of acres in northern Maine and nearly the entire 6-million-acre Adirondack Park offer suitable habitat, the organization believes. It said there are woods in between to allow “wildlife corridor” migration.