Waiting for Wolves

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

In October 2006, Charlie Hammond, a resident of Troy, Vermont, shot what he thought was a coyote in a field. Turns out, the animal weighed 90 pounds, about twice as much as the average Vermont coyote. It had several characteristics, including a long muzzle, slanted eyes, and a black nose pad, that suggested it could be a wolf. State wildlife officials took tissue samples to test for DNA to get to the bottom of the mystery.

If the DNA samples prove the animal to be a wild wolf, it would be the first wild wolf in Vermont in over 100 years. DNA results from a 72-pound canine shot in Vermont in 1997 were inconclusive, causing officials to believe it was a canine hybrid of some sort.

The last wolf in New Hampshire was killed in 1887. There are no clear records of Vermont’s last wolf, but they are believed to have been wiped out in the state by 1900.

The 1800s were not happy times for wolves in northern New England. Much of the land was cleared for agriculture or was clearcut. Moose and white-tailed deer populations had plummeted. Sheep farms ruled the Vermont landscape, providing easy hunting for wolves, but making the wolf the dire enemy of farmers. Bounties on wolves in both Vermont and New Hampshire provided ample incentive for anyone who could kill a wolf to do so.

By the mid-1900s, most of that had changed. As abandoned farms grew back into forests, they provided an ideal habitat for moose and deer, and those animals flourished. People, especially those in urban areas, stopped seeing the wolf as a big, bad threat to little pigs and red-hooded girls and started thinking of it as a symbol of freedom in the nation’s ever dwindling wild lands.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified potential wolf habitat in New York’s Adirondacks, in northern Maine, and along the Maine and New Hampshire border. Since then, areas of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom have been cited as potential wolf habitat as well.

With stable wolf populations in both Ontario and Quebec, it was thought that wolves would return to the Northeast simply by strolling over the Canadian border. But today, a channel in the St. Lawrence River is kept constantly clear of ice for shipping traffic. Wolves may have once crossed the frozen river in winter, but wolves swimming the frigid river channel while dodging boat traffic seems unlikely.

In 1995, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park. It seemed that the only thing that stood in the way of wolf reintroduction in the Northeast was political will. In 1999, the State legislature of New Hampshire expressed its will by passing a law forbidding the reintroduction of wolves to that state.

But nature has its own will. In 2002, wolves were killed in Canada just 20 miles from the New Hampshire border. Then, 10 miles from the border, fish and wildlife officials asked Vermont hunters be on the lookout for wolves in northern Vermont.

Since then, there have been several years of poor weather conditions for tracking wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s budget has been cut time and again. The Endangered Species Act, the legal foundation for the wolf’s reintroduction, became endangered itself.

The very success of wolf reintroduction programs in the West kept the environmental groups that are interested in wolf restoration busy: as wolf populations grew, so did the wolves’ run-ins with humans.

Peggy Struhsacker, a wolf specialist with the Natural Resource Defense Council who is based in Vermont, has been working for wolf restoration long enough to have watched people’s attitudes toward wolves change.

In the West, many ranchers, once the wolves’ enemies because of livestock losses, have become wolf supporters. “Those ranchers I’ve spoken with say, ‘I have the privilege of using this public land, so I know I have to share it with wildlife,’” says Struhsacker. These days, it’s the elk hunters and the outfitters, she says, who fight the hardest against the wolf.

Struhsacker saw the animal that was shot in Troy last fall after it had been frozen. She does not believe it was a wild wolf. “Its nose wasn’t quite right,” she says.

Also, she says, its fur was fuzzy and curly in places, something seen in domesticated animals, but not in wild ones. Its claws and the fur on its backside were worn in a way that suggested it had spent time on cement. Plus, she says, it had a pot-belly, which generally isn’t seen even in wild animals in good wolf habitat.

The DNA results, announced last month, showed that the animal was a wolf, but, as Struhsacker suggested, that it was likely a domestic animal, bred by humans since its genes mixed strains of wolf that wouldn’t have the opportunity to breed in the wild. The Northeast will have to continue to wait for the return of the wild wolf.

Madeline Bodin is a writer who lives in Andover, Vermont.

  1. Leslie
    Jan 28, 2008

    My neighbor said he saw a really large coyote the other night, however he said it looked like it weighed about 80lbs. or more. Is it possible that it may be a wolf. I have baby goats and other animals on my farm that would be easy prey if it is a wolf. Please reply soon I am concerned and want to know what I should do if it is a wolf. I stay at home alone with my 2 & 5 year olds and want to take the proper actions. Please email me if you can, I think people in the neighborhood are also concerned, including the hunters.

  2. Madeline
    Feb 15, 2008

    I certainly understand your being frightened after being told such a large animal is in your neighborhood.

    You (or your neighbor) might want to contact the NY Department of Environmental Conservation to let them know about this animal. Just a heads-up: people tend to misjudge the size of animals, particularly predators. From what I’ve heard from scientists in the field, chances are good this animal is actually smaller that it appears.

    I think it’s important to keep your livestock safe no matter what type of animals are in your neighborhood. Not being a farmer myself, I checked out the NY DEC Web site for info on livestock protection and found this:

    “It is much easier to prevent depredation from occurring than it is to stop it once it starts. Contact your Regional DEC Wildlife Office or the USDA APHIS - Wildlife Services, 1930 Route 9, Castleton NY 12033, Phone (518) 477-4837 or visit their web site for more information.”

    There are some basic things that everyone who lives near wildlife can do: don’t feed pets outside, don’t let pets roam free, don’t approach wild animals, keep your garbage locked up tight, keep an eye on your children, and make sure they know never to approach any strange animal without the animal owner’s permission.

  3. Gilbert Rainault
    Dec 18, 2008

    You need not to worry a wolf will not bother a human. The only way you would have a problem is if you corner it. As for your goats and type of canine you need to watch for. Let’s forget the fairy tales of wolves are just that, a fairy tale.

  4. JD
    Mar 23, 2012

    I live in Montgomery. I was sitting on my porch talking on the phone with my porch light on and my driveway sensor lights on and a large canine came out from the side of my garage and across my driveway, crossed the street and disappear into the dark field.I believe it was a wolf -  very large and it looked husky. There are no dogs in the area that look like this. And it definitely was not a coyote. I’ve seen a coyote. It sure didn’t give a hoot that I was sitting there. A dog? No, dogs are too nosy and like to sniff you. A hybrid? Well I just don’t believe wolves and coyotes mate, not going to happen (well, only if in captivity and brought up as pups together, yes maybe). And Coy dog? Well that is just a name New Englanders came up with -  no such thing. Coyotes do not mate with dogs either. I have never seen this animal again, but have seen plenty of coyotes. This actually happened this summer and I live 15 mins from the Canadian border. Is this possible? I believe it is -  anything is….

  5. Mel
    Jan 22, 2014

    For the last six or seven years I’ve been hearing wolves howling not far from my house. If anyone has ever heard coyotes and wolves howl together there is no mistaking the sound. I have a recording taken from East Ryegate in the Northeast Kingdom region of VT with confirmed wolf howls with as many as 7 individuals. I have hiked, backpacked and camped in the wilds for years sometimes for half a year. I’ve seen pups emerging from dens, wildlife people taking measurements while denying wolves are repopulating here. The same goes for mountain lions. I have tracked and recorded audio of cougars here in the northeast. The populations of both are small (wolves may have 4 packs of less than 8 Individuals each and mountain lions are probably fewer maybe 7-10 in 300 square miles) . Its a start and gives hope that these animals have a future.

    Mar 12, 2014

    I have posted a comment here on wolves in Montgomery. Now it is 2014 and for the past few weeks I have been getting very large canine tracks around my house. At first I was like, “Oh look, a coyote track,” until I realized that the track is the size of my hand -  that is no coyote. The paws have to be 4 inches or larger.  I do have a female husky in my home and she may have been in heat.  I took photos of the prints and took them to a local gun shop we go to and he said they were wolf tracks and said, “Do you have a dog?”, I asked why (I thought maybe he wanted me to track the tracks with my dog), he said, “Is it a male or female?”,  I said, “Female”.  he said her heat attracted the wolf to my house. Is this possible? I don’t want a lot of people to know because I don’t want someone to try and kill it before I can actually get it on my trail cam I put on my porch -  plus, I don’t want it dead anyway.  I think it’s truly amazing if it is a wolf.

  7. Alice
    Sep 28, 2015

    I was sitting on my porch talking with my friend (Drake) and I saw a PANTHER go mock 10 across my lawn and LEAP over the fence that leads into the horse pasture. My bffs (Hillary and Lidia) saw two mountain lions chilling on their porch. They have a picture of it.

  8. Jim English
    Dec 23, 2018

    I have seen a black, white and gray wolf appx 90 to 100 lbs on my 285 acre lot just south of the Canadian border. in North Troy, VT I have heard them during deer hunting, which caused me to leave my hunt because I was on the ground. The wolves are alive and well in the Northeast Kingdom and I am happy for them.

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