NYSDEC Reverses Course, Now Calls The Cooperstown Wolf A Wolf

On September 21, 2022, after a second independent DNA study confirmed that the wolf killed outside of Cooperstown, New York was indeed a wolf, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) reversed course and announced that the wolf was actually a wolf. DEC had referred to the Cooperstown wolf as a coyote since examining the dead animal in December 2021 and conducting a DNA study in early 2022. DEC publicly dubbed the wolf a coyote in many news reports in July after an independent DNA study was published at Trent University in Canada, organized by the Northeast Ecological Recovery Society (NERS). Trent University DNA analysis showed that the Cooperstown wolf had 98% wolf genes.

In July, the DEC cited its own DNA study as evidence that the wolf was a coyote. The DEC used this DNA study in their press releases at the time. Mike Lynch at Adirondack Explorer reported in July that the DEC had DNA analysis from the Wildlife Genetics Institute at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania that showed the Cooperstown wolf “was positively identified as an eastern coyote, with a mix of coyote, wolf and wolf.” canine genetics”. WTEN News 10 in Albany reported the story, quoting Lori Severino, a DEC spokeswoman, said “Initial DNA analyzes performed revealed that the wild canid is most closely identified as an eastern coyote.”

In July, the DEC refused to release its DNA study to the public. Protect the Adirondacks and other groups and media submitted freedom of information requests for the study. DEC sent out letters in September saying this study would not be available until October at the earliest.

The second DNA study, again organized by NERS and this time conducted by Princeton University, found that the Cooperstown wolf was 96.2% wolf DNA. After this report was published, the DEC decided to share its East Stroudsburg University DNA study with Mike Lynch, who reported on the second independent DNA study. It turns out that the DEC’s DNA study found that the wolf from Cooperstown was 65.2% wolf and 34.8% eastern coyote.

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East Stroudsburg University’s DNA study, based on samples from the dead Cooperstown wolf, was submitted to the DEC on April 13, 2022. Why did the DEC sit on this report for five full months before it was released? A bigger mystery is why did the DEC publicly say the Cooperstown wolf was a coyote when DNA analysis showed it was 65.2% wolf?

Following the Princeton DNA study, the DEC released the following statement on September 23:

Wolves have been documented coming to NYS in the past two decades. The coyotes that dominate New York State are a hybrid of wolves and coyotes, with many animals sharing much of the wolf genes. Over the past 30 years, coyotes in Adirondack Park have exhibited a number of wolf-like behaviors, such as pack-forming, at least temporarily. Deer kills, particularly on frozen lakes in winter by packs of coyotes, are a regular occurrence. Signs of deer killing are common on frozen lakes in the Adirondacks.

In addition to officially recognizing that the Cooperstown wolf was a wolf, the DEC must keep gray wolves on the NYS Endangered Species Act list. DEC states that wolves are “extinct” species in the state.

DEC says it will start providing information to hunters. DEC has updated its website with information on the differences between a wolf and a coyote using similar language to the Maine Fish and Game website, but much more needs to be done. The DEC website states:

Wolf vs. Coyote: Large coyotes (50+ pounds) have been reported in New York, but they are uncommon. Any dog ​​weighing 50 pounds or more can be a wolf, mixed wolf, or domestic dog. New York law protects wolves from being hunted or caught. It is also illegal to indiscriminately shoot domestic dogs or mixed-breed wolves. We have documented a number of wolves and cross-breeds in New York over the last 20 years. In most cases we believe these animals were released from captivity. However, feral wolves exist in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, and it is possible that these animals could make their way to New York. Please use caution in identifying any large canids you may encounter. If you suspect you have trapped a dog that is over 4.5 feet long (tip of nose to tip of tail) and weighs over 50 pounds, contact the NYSDEC Police Department (1-844-332-3267) before shipping the animal.

Size comparison of a coyote vs. a wolf track.

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Social media images of the dead Cooperstown wolf and the hunter show the wolf was shot with a scoped muzzle-loading rifle. The wolf was shot by the hunter, who was likely deer hunting during late muzzleloader season, which follows regular deer season in many parts of New York. In the Adirondacks, muzzleloader or black powder hunting precedes the regular deer season. Deer hunters are trained to look for antlers and even estimate the tips and size of the antlers. The hunter must have viewed the Cooperstown wolf closely through his scope for at least a few seconds before shooting him. Had the DEC provided information to hunters in NYS about wolves, wolf coyote identification, or protection under the Endangered Species Act, that hunter might have been able to recognize that he had a protected wolf in his area, not just a really big coyote, and not shooting him, letting the wolf pass and contacting the DEC for his location. All NYS hunters should receive information about the possible presence of wolves in the state as part of the materials they receive with their hunting licenses.

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The problem of repopulating historic habitats in Adirondack Park, with its extensive forested landscape, or in other parts of New York State with large agricultural and forested areas will not go away. Years of research have shown that many coyotes in New York carry wolf genes. This research has shown that the amount of wolf genes in these animals is increasing. At what point and what percentage of DNA or with what types of DNA is a coyote legally a wolf? These are important and complicated issues for the DEC to contend with.

Unfortunately, these questions seem inappropriate for current DEC leadership. DEC’s actions surrounding the Cooperstown wolf raise many questions about how the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation is handling this issue. This episode features an agency that has fallen short when it comes to disclosing information to the public. This episode shows a DEC that needs to get even better in terms of openness and transparency. This episode features an agency deliberately misleading the public and blocking public requests for information. This episode shows an agency where political concerns trump science.

Most importantly, this episode features an agency that has failed in its duty to protect a wild animal in upstate New York under the Endangered Species Act. The Cooperstown wolf has never had the legal protection it is entitled to under New York State law.

(Image in this story courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.)