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Mystery wolf found near Albany

By MATT PACENZA / Albany Times Union

It was more than two years ago that Russ Lawrence shot and killed what he thought was an unusually large coyote one moonlit night. Or perhaps some sort of wolf-dog hybrid.

State environmental officials agreed, but then, just last month, federal wildlife agents came to his door - and demanded that he turn over the pelt from the 85-pound male canid that he had hung on his porch.

It turns out it was no coyote, or even a hybrid. Lawrence had shot a purebred grey wolf, the first wolf found in New York state since 1899. Extensive laboratory testing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicates the animal was a Canis lupis.

No one knows where the wolf came from. It could have escaped or been released by someone who had illegally adopted a wolf cub. Or perhaps it migrated from known grey wolf populations in the Midwest or eastern Canada.

The discovery may rekindle a debate that's been dormant since the late 1990s, when wildlife advocates mounted a campaign urging the reintroduction of wolves into the Adirondacks.

The lab did look for signs in the wolf's nails and teeth that could have proved it was raised domestically, but those tests were inconclusive, according to Diana Weaver, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman.

There is some evidence to suggest the wolf was wild. A wolf born in captivity would likely have a difficult time surviving, let alone thriving. This wolf was healthy and good-sized, with a bellyful of deer meat.

Wildlife experts say it's plausible that the animal made its way down from packs in Quebec, or eastward from Minnesota or Wisconsin, crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River in winter.

Calling the discovery "exciting," N.Y. state wildlife pathologist Ward Stone said he's not surprised that a wolf has been discovered in the Adirondacks, given the recovery of the region's forest and the fact that other fish and animal species have moved back into the area after extended absences. "They have their own space exploration program," Stone said.

Federal Fish and Wildlife officials started re-examining the "coyote" that Lawrence shot when they received a call last year from an unidentified individual in Maine, who's an advocate for reintroducing wolves, suggesting that they look into it.

They located some of the animal's skull and tissues, which had been sent for study to the State Museum in Albany and to New York state's College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.

Several months of genetic testing later, the National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore., determined the creature was a purebred grey wolf.

The finding is so far being treated as an isolated discovery. Weaver said Fish and Wildlife officials will wait for additional confirmations of wolves in the Adirondacks before creating legal protections for the creatures.

"One wolf does not a population make," said Weaver.

She said that given wolves' natural skittishness and the vast land tract of the Adirondacks, it would be nearly impossible to find additional wolves.

Unfortunately, it may require another hunter accidentally shooting another wolf to figure out if there are more.

Alternatively, Weaver said, wolf genetics can be tested through a tissue sample from a tranquillized animal or through fur left behind on posts sprayed to attract wolves. The Fish and Wildlife Service has no plans to try either of those methods.

The non-profit Defenders of Wildlife funded a study examining the viability of wolves in the Adirondacks. In 1999, the study recommended against reintroduction, finding that development would likely make wolves' survival in the region doubtful.

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