Gray wolf returns to New England
March 8, 2008
For more than a century — in Connecticut, more than two centuries — gray wolves have been absent from the New England landscape.
Now, wolf by wolf, that may be changing.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it had officially identified a large, dog-like animal killed in western Massachusetts last fall as a wild gray wolf. It’s the first time in 160 years a wild wolf has roamed that state.
It’s unclear where the wolf came from — the best guess is that it made its way south from established wolf populations in Ontario or Quebec.
“There are a lot of questions we don’t have answers for,” Thomas Healy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s special agent in charge, said Wednesday.
Dale May, director of the wildlife division of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said young wolves seeking to establish their own territory can travel “100, 200 or 300 miles.” If a wolf were able to move from Canada to Massachusetts, May said, there’s reason to think one might eventually wander even farther south into the forests of northern Connecticut.
“This was unexpected,” May said of the Masachusetts finding. “But wolves have been known to roam.”
A single gray wolf won’t mean a pack will ever set up residence in Connecticut. May said wolves need 50 to 100 square miles of wild country to operate successfully.
“That means low human population and a low road density,” he said. “There aren’t many places like that in Connecticut.”
I don’t think we have to worry about wolves in Danbury or Westchester County,” said Maggie Howell, operations manager with the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, N.Y. “There are too many people. Wolves know people are dangerous.”At the same time, Howell said, the entire Northeast has been “screaming” for a predator like the gray wolf to control the overabundance of white-tailed deer.
Such a predator “could have a huge impact on the ecosystem, down to the level of things like insects,” she said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovered the Massachusetts wolf in October after a farmer in the town of Shelburne killed it. The wolf had previously mauled and killed some lambs on his property.
At that time, Healy said, the service wasn’t sure exactly what it had.
“Did we know we had a big one?” he said. “Yes.”
The service identified the animal as a gray wolf only after DNA testing showed it was not a dog, a coyote or a dog-wolf hybrid. Instead, the service said, the DNA was consistent with gray wolves.
Healy said this is the third gray wolf identified in recent years in the Northeast — the others were in Maine and northern New York. But he said it’s very possible these three weren’t loners and that other wolves are drifting down into the region from Canada.
“That’s what a lot of people have said,” Healy said. “You don’t know what else is out there.”
Howell said both Maine and the Adirondacks have long been considered prime wolf territory, and there have been anecdotal sightings of wolves in the region in the past.
“This has been the most definitive discovery,” Howell said. “This is pretty exciting.”
What has surprised wildlife experts is that to get from the Canadian border to Massachusetts, a wolf would need to cross the St. Lawrence River as well as land, staying largely undiscovered.
“He did a lot of traveling without being noticed,” Howell said.
Healy said the area around Shelburne in western Massachusetts is heavily wooded. A wolf that crossed the St. Lawrence could wander through Vermont into Massachusetts without crossing the paths of many humans.
May said if wolves do establish themselves in Maine or New York, it would be more likely one could wander from there to Connecticut.
May said wildlife biologists are learning many animals in the Northeast — while still wary of humans — have learned they can coexist with them.
“We’re finding a lot of these animals are far more adaptable than we think they are.”