Wild Wolf in New York Reinforces Need for Northeastern Protections
Usually, the WCC is one of your only opportunities to come across any wolves, wild or not, in the northeastern United States. The howl of the wolf has been silent in the Northeast for centuries. Persecution of the northeastern wolf began in 1630 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony paid bounty hunters an average month’s salary for each wolf killed. For the next three centuries, as settlement extended across the continent, hunters shot, poisoned, trapped, dynamited and burned wolves. After the decimation of natural prey herds during the 19th century, wolf populations declined. Resulting conflicts with humans led to the elimination of wolves from the forests of northern Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont by the mid 1800’s. That said, there have been continued sightings of wolves in the northeast over the years due to natural dispersal from populations in Canada or neighboring populations in the Great Lakes Region, necessitating updated protections in northeastern states, regardless of how sparse the wolf population currently is. This conversation came to the forefront earlier this week, when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation tweeted confirmation that wolf killed in Otsego Co. back in Dec. 2021 was indeed a wild wolf.
Endangered Species Protections
At the moment, all wolves are protected under ESA protections across the northeast, but as we saw during the leadership of the Trump administration, ESA protections can’t always be counted on across every region. Another problem unique to the northeast is how closely wolves resemble eastern coyotes which have much less protection throughout the northeast and allows an easy loophole for anyone who kills a wolf due to misattribution. None of the five states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts or New York acknowledges the presence or likely presence of wolves, exacerbating the problem. None of the states has sufficient precautions in place to protect wolves from being killed accidentally or intentionally. While it would be great if there was a calculated effort to return wolves to the region, we’re really just advocating for protecting those that might venture here from Canada or the Great Lakes.
There is evidence to suggest several regions in the Northeast contain wolves already, and could sustain a healthy population. Successful forest regeneration in the past 100 years has created suitable wolf habitat again in the region, and scientists continue to study the possibility of the natural recolonization and restoration of wolves to the ecosystem. According to the 1999 Edition of the USFWS’ Wolf Tracks,
“The Recovery Plan for the Eastern Timber Wolf identifies several areas in the Northeastern United States as potential sites for the restoration of the gray wolf. These areas include a portion of eastern Maine, northwestern Maine and an area of adjacent New Hampshire, and the Adirondack Forest Preserve Area of northern New York. All of these areas are within the Northern Forest Ecosystem, a 26 million-acre forested area that extends from the Adirondack Mountains of New York east through most of Maine. The area contains suitable gray wolf habitat and lies within the historic range of the gray wolf.”
There have been several wolves documented in northeastern states since 1993. Given the large swaths of uninhabited forestland in Maine and in the Northeast as a whole, it is likely that these documented wolf killings and sightings represent only a fraction of the wolves actually present in the Northeast. For every chance encounter listed above, there is likely an additional number of wolves that are present but remain undocumented.
At the moment, New York, New Hampshire, and Connecticut make mention of wolves on their state endangered species plans, though several of them could use adjustment. But other states with modern wolf sightings, such as Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine don’t have wolves listed in their Endangered Species Plans at all. Most of these states use the justification that wolves are presently extinct in their states, but the recent illumination in New York proves that at the very least there’s a possibility that some wolves are out there and in need of protection. In the Otsego Co. case, the wolf was killed while federal restrictions were lifted, further proving the need for each of these states to address wolves in their wildlife management plans, even if it’s a hypothetical at the moment.
Ultimately this single wolf may not move the needle for many people in the northeast, but it spurs a larger conversation that is absolutely worth having about wolves and their potential roles and resulting human protections that could help guide a brighter future for not only wolves, but ecosystems at large in the northeast.
Protecting wolves in the northeast is crucial for maintaining the balance of natural systems, preserving cultural significance, ensuring their survival, and promoting sustainable tourism. As apex predators, wolves play a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance by regulating the populations of herbivores such as deer and moose. Wolves in the northeast are still considered endangered nationally, but states should address this locally because protecting them is essential for their survival and the promotion of a healthy ecosystem.