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Posted: Oct 30 2006, 03:00 AM
Member No.: 1
Joined: 10-July 06
By MIKE LYNCH, Enterprise Staff Writer
Gray wolves are the largest species of wolf and are protected as a federally endangered species.
(Photo courtesy of CREW)
SARANAC LAKE — Today, wolves in the Adirondacks apparently only exist in fleeting moments often chalked up to imagination: a howl heard by a hiker, a sighting by an enthusiastic naturalist, a track found in muddied earth.
Many experts agree that not since the 1890s have the often mythologized creatures appeared locally.
Once considered a threat to humans, livestock and domestic animals, wolves were heavily hunted in the Northeast in the years after European colonization. The government offered bounties, and locals killed them out of fear or to protect their own animals. This, along with habitat destruction, led to the their extirpation.
Yet throughout the last century through stories — both in print and orally — the shadow of the wolf has remained on the Adirondack landscape.
Newspaper accounts in 1930s
More than three decades after the wolf officially disappeared from the Adirondacks, a spate of sightings were reported in newspapers in the Chasm Falls area of Bellmont, northwest of Saranac Lake.
It was the early 1930s — at the same time non-native coyotes reportedly made their way here — that headlines such as “Wolves back in the Adirondack Forests Again” and “No ‘Invasion’ of Wolves Doctor Harwood Contends: They’ve Always Been Here” began to appear in some local publications.
“Seven lean and gaunt iron gray wolves, dreaded by hunters and mountain folk who know the rapacious capacity of the outlaws of the Canadian forest, are reported to be roaming the Adirondack wilds,” the Ausable Forks Record-Post reported in February of 1931. “They were seen traveling south through the foothills near Malone a few days ago by Thomas Monette, a veteran hunter and farmer who resides on an extensive farm in Bellmont.”
The same newspaper account reported that the wolves “were traveling along the bank of the Trout River, having crossed the frozen St. Lawrence River from the Ontario district to find imprisoned deer and other choice food in the Adirondacks.”
Around the same time, local resident Silas Ellis reportedly trapped a five-foot, 75-pound animal in Chasm Falls.
Despite these reports, there were doubts that wolves were in the area. In 1934, a letter to the editor in the Malone Telegram indicated there was a debate about whether the reports were erroneously labelling coyotes as wolves.
“Few believed the animals were really wolves, for evidence to farmers’ flocks or deer was too meager to be at all convincing,” F.L. Farmer wrote, although it is unclear to which articles he is responding to.
Regardless, there is no known hard evidence that these animals were wolves.
Since that time, there have been scattered reports of wolves. A cursory search of stories might bring up articles such as the one about Saranac Lake police sergeant “Bud” Betters. In 1968, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported that Betters killed a wolf at Deer Pond the previous fall.
More recently, there have been several reports of wolves being killed throughout the state. In 2002, a wolf was killed by a hunter in Saratoga County.
While some point to these sightings, such as the one in Saratoga, as examples that there are wolves in the Adirondacks, others like Ken Kogut of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Peggy Struhsacker, a wolf specialist with the National Wildlife Federation, believe these to be domesticated and not wild animals or just strays that don’t represent breeding populations.
Coyotes or wolves?
Today, like the 1930s, there are sightings of large canid animals. What has changed is science-based technology, which has brought new debates.
Now wildlife specialists are trying to determine such issues as which wolf actually lived in the Adirondacks and whether or not the eastern coyote currently living here has strains of wolf in it, potentially making it a suitable replacement for the wolf.
Originally, the gray wolf, which can weigh up to 115 pounds and resemble a husky, was believed to be present here. Now, there are some who think a different species of wolf that currently inhabits the Algonquin Provincial Park area in Ontario may have been here.
This animal is known as the eastern wolf, which has genes similar to the red wolf, once prevalent in the southwest of North America and more recently introduced in North Carolina. The eastern wolf can weigh up to about 65 pounds.
“We’re thinking it was a smaller wolf, like a red wolf,” Kogut said referring to the eastern wolf. “It’s a very complicated issue.”
In North America, the eastern wolf may have been present in the mid-latitude deciduous forests and the gray wolf may have been present in the northernmost forests of Canada, or some combination of the two.
“Currently, the canids east of the Mississippi, their DNA is a just a bunch of hybrids,” Struhsacker said.
Adirondack wolf in the future?
These genetics questions only complicate any potential future re-introduction of the wolf to the Adirondacks but the door is still potentially open.
In 2005, Defenders of Wildlife and its partners won a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service negating a 2003 ruling that reduced the status of wolves in the Northeast from endangered to threatened. By keeping the endangered status, wolves are afforded more federal protections.
Currently, there are no plans on the table for reintroduction here, which may be necessary if the wolf is to return.
Struhsacker sees the Adirondacks as an “island” that is difficult for wolves to get to. There are too many obstacles, including highways and human development.
Others, though, such as Joe Bufero of Northeast Ecological Recovery Society, and Peter O’Shea, a naturalist who lives near Star Lake, are hopeful that wolves and other wildlife may naturally find their way from Canada to the Adirondack Park.
In the past, there have been initiatives to promote wildlife corridors, such as the Algonquin Provincial Park to Adirondack Corridor.
“The wildlife corridors will facilitate the wildlife coming back and there will be a minimum of human disturbance,” O’Shea said.
A radio-collared moose reportedly went from the Adirondacks to Algonquin in the 1990s, and it is not unheard of for animals to travel great distances. But currently between the two areas there are numerous highways, hunters and other obstacles that make the route treacherous for wildlife. Not to mention that the St. Lawrence River, which animals like wolves can cross in winter or summer, is in the way.
Struhsacker, who doesn’t think the corridor is a viable one for wolves, said there have been wolves coming from Canada into northern New Hampshire and Maine.
“It’s only 60 to 70 miles from the wolf population in northern Quebec, if you draw a straight line,” she said. “They have to cross the St. Lawrence.”
Several wolves have been killed by cars near the crossing point on the St. Lawrence near Trois-Rivieres.
“If they get across there, they just have the highway and then they pretty much have a corridor through to New Hampshire and or Maine.”
Those who are hopeful of wolves one day returning to the Adirondacks, or even the northeastern United States, see the animal as a key component that is missing from the ecosystem.
Some like Kogut believe coyotes may already be filling the niche of the wolf in consuming deer and acting as an apex predator. Others believe there is a void that still needs to be filled.
Coyotes eat vegetation and insects throughout the summer, Struhsacker said. “Most of the protein they get is from small rodents and rabbits.”
But wolves, she said, need about 25 pounds of red meat a weak to survive and they “are not vegetarians at all,” she said. “They are strictly a carnivore” and consume more deer than coyotes.
Wolves restore diversity to an area that coyotes can’t, she said. After they hunt and feed, they will leave a carcass behind, which will provide for scavengers and insects.
“The carcasses can be utilized by a bunch of different species,” Struhsacker said.
Bufero said that a wolf population would benefit moose and deer populations because they would eat the weaker ones, reducing the spread of disease. He pointed out that moose that are infected with brain parasites would be prime targets for the predator.
Still, a wolf population, even if it was to get here naturally, may not be able to maintain itself. A report in the late 1990s by the Conservation Biology Institute of Corvallis, Ore. concluded a small wolf population could survive if reintroduced to the Adirondacks, but in the long run wouldn’t prove viable because of the habitat.
One thing that wolf advocates believe is important to the survival of wolves is human tolerance, a reversal of attitudes from the past when they were hunted down and eliminated.
In the 1930s, when there were reports of wolves returning to the area, they were referred to as “man-eaters” and “carnivorous beasts”; the newspaper writers called for them to be “exterminated.”
“With (human) tolerance and willingness to live alongside wolves, I definitely think they could make it in the Northeast,” said Nadia Steinzor of Coalition to Restore the Eastern Wolf. “They make it in environments even less conducive to wild animals in Europe. They have healthy populations of wolves in Italy and Spain.”
People like O’Shea keep their fingers crossed that one day the wolf will return to the Adirondacks.
O’Shea claims he saw two eastern wolves — smaller reddish animals — while hiking several years ago between Long Lake and Tupper Lake.
A former coyote hunter, O’Shea said he knows the difference between coyotes and wolves.
“You’ll never mistake them,” he said.