Could Wolves Repopulate the Adirondacks?

by David Lee Drotar | February 2022, Nature and Environment

Photograph from Shutterstock

After eradication in the Lower 48, wolves are now thriving in some Rocky Mountain states. The animals had disappeared from the Adi­rondacks by 1900, due to unrestricted hunting and habitat loss. Could reintroduction or natural recolonization bring Eastern wolves back to the region? 

Two New York lawmakers want to set the stage for that to happen—or at least not rule it out. Early in 2021, state senator Todd Kaminsky and assemblyman Steve Englebright wrote a letter to Basil Seggos, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), asking that wolves remain on the state’s endangered species list to protect future habitat, despite their federal delisting.

That tack is unlikely to succeed, as it bumps up against the DEC’s mission. “The protection of habitat without species present is not something that DEC has the ability to do under our current regulations,” explains DEC wildlife biologist Amanda Bailey. “Protections that DEC grants to animals apply directly to the animal and its occupied habitat.” And any push for a reintroduction program similar to the highly successful 1995 program conducted in Yellowstone National Park is currently off the table.

New York has never formally proposed reintroduction of wolves into the Adirondacks or elsewhere, Bailey says, though the DEC did evaluate a 1999 reintroduction project proposed by the Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit environmental group with an active carnivore conservation agenda. (Wolves and other apex predators can help promote healthy deer populations and provide scraps for scavengers.) Citing residents’ objections and unfavorable ecological conditions for the long-term persistence of wolves, the evaluation concluded that wolf reintroduction would not be a good option. In 2015 DEC released another statement reaffirming its position. 

“Deer and moose densities are low in the Adirondack Park,” says Bailey. “Wolves would likely have to move from more remote areas to locate higher densities of prey, which would likely increase potential conflicts and mortality from vehicle collisions.” While the Adirondacks has large blocks of forested land, conditions are poor outside the park, with more roads and population clusters. 

Wolves could make it to the region on their own, though it would be difficult. There are Eastern wolves (Canis lycaon) in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. These neighboring areas are within the maximum 520-mile wolf dispersal range, the distance a species can move from an existing population into a new location. However, a pioneer pack would encounter obstacles along the way. The wolves would need to travel through areas with high levels of human development and then cross the St. Lawrence River. 

Some wolves appear to have beaten the odds, at least temporarily. In 2002 a hunter in the town of Day shot what he thought was a coyote. A carbon isotope test on the hair and bone revealed it to be a wolf. The animal had been eating a wild diet—there was no indication of corn- or grain-sourced carbon that would typically make up meals fed to a pet or zoo animal that might have escaped. The lone male wolf somehow got here on his own.

A coyote-wolf hybrid popularly known as a “coywolf” is already living in the Adirondacks. People may easily mistake these animals for wolves, as they can weigh up to 50 pounds. Like wolves, they have a family pack structure. If coywolves are present, could wolves already be nearby and breeding with coyotes? 

“This is where it gets a little weird,” Bailey says, explaining the latest re­search into the complex genetics of wolves, coyotes, dogs and everything in between.

The term coywolf is probably a misnomer, as it implies a 50-50 mix of coyote and wolf. Coywolf and coydog both refer to coyotes that have other than pure coyote DNA. Coyotes in New York might have up to 25 percent wolf DNA and 10 percent dog DNA. The remainder, up to 80 percent, is original coyote DNA. 

Historically, coyotes lived only in the southwestern and plains states. Wolves would prey on coyotes. When the wolves disappeared, the coyotes’ range expanded. Some went north of the Great Lakes and then south to New York. Genetic studies suggest that coyotes probably interbred with wolves in Canada about a century ago. Wolves, coyotes and dogs can all interbreed and produce fertile offspring, leading biologists to move away from the concept of distinct species. But there is no indication that interbreeding is taking place now. 

If wolves did move into the Adirondacks, the signs would be subtle at first. Out West, wolf packs forced elk to spend more time moving and less time browsing on vegetation in one location. The elk did not decimate entire stands of willow and aspen as they had done prior to the arrival of their predator. “We might see something like that if wolves did show up,” Bailey says, but with deer. Realistically, the prevalence of trail cameras and roadkill would probably be the first clear evidence of wolf presence.

Wolves have a long slog if they are to regain a foothold in the Adirondacks. But the wolf is a very adaptable and highly intelligent animal. If we’re lucky, we may see ecological balance unfold on its own as the wolf reclaims its rightful place in nature.  

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