ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – As far as anyone seems to know, it had been a while since anyone had seen a gray wolf in the Adirondack Park, when a Cherry Valley hunter came across one last year. The Ostego County man didn’t know that what he had shot was a wolf, and the truth wasn’t confirmed until DNA testing came back to the New York State DEC just last month.

Now, it’s official. A gray wolf has been spotted in the Adirondacks for the first time since the start of the 20th century. The fact that it was only identified after being shot and killed is cause for alarm, and for education, according to Adirondack conservation groups like the Adirondack Council.

Following the discovery of the wolf, the Adirondack Council has put a call out to the DEC. Currently, the gray wolf is considered an endangered species in New York, but in 2019, the state organization recently announced a plan to change that classification to “extinct.” That change would remove legal protections around the animal, making it much harder for it to return to its former habitats in the Adirondacks.

“The size of the Adirondack coyote population – not in terms of the number of coyotes, but in terms of individual coyote size – tends to confuse people between a coyote and a wolf, which is what happened in Ostego County,” said John Sheehan, Communications Director for the Adirondack Council. “We suspect it’s likely that the same thing is happening elsewhere, and we’re not hearing about it.”

Currently, the gray wolf is under both New York and Federal protection. State endangered species regulations prohibit the taking of an endangered animal without a permit. “Taking” in this case encompasses hunting and killing, as well as taking a direct role in damage to the habitats of those species.

In the case of the gray wolf, the habitat is huge. The parts of the Adirondack Park most hospitable to the wolf are largely the boreal forests of the northern Adirondacks, which sports terrain and food sources similar to those of Canada – likely the direction that wolves are migrating from. That said, lower and central Adirondack areas with Appalachian hardwood also play a suitable host. What the wolf really needs is space to live, far from humans – whether those humans think they’re seeing a coyote, or know exactly what they’re looking at.

“Wolves have never attacked a human being, but have always been associated with disaster because they do kill livestock,” Sheehan said. “If they killed the sheep or cow that was your only means of survival, that’s a bad winter for you.”

The DEC’s consideration of reclassifying the gray wolf was preliminary. In 2019, the organization put out a pre-proposal seeking public feedback on whether delisting the wolf as endangered made sense. At that time, the wolf had been removed from the list of species protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act, but it was later put back. As long as it’s protected at the Federal level, the state is required to follow suit.

That’s a far cry from the state of things when the gray wolf vanished. In the 1800s, state policy was in place offering a bounty to any hunter who turned in a dead gray wolf. That bounty remained posted into the start of the 20th century, by which point there wasn’t a wolf to be found.

When the wolves come home

The Adirondacks sans wolves have changed. Sheehan says that the return of the gray wolf would help cull a rising white-tail deer population that has exploded across the Adirondacks within the last 100 years. The lack of predators isn’t the only cause – warmer habitats due to climate change are also partially to blame.

The huge numbers of deer leave their own mark. New trees planted by well-meaning property owners and environmental groups in areas of deforestation have quickly been eaten up by deer, before ever having a chance to populate areas with lost greenery. Deer also carry parasites that threaten moose – another species that wolves prey on.

With last year’s wolf confirmed, both the DEC and the Adirondack Council agree that care should be taken by anyone taking shots at what they think may be coyotes. The animals can be told apart by their size – even a large coyote will usually not exceed around 45 pounds and will stay the size of a bobcat. Wolves may be as big as a Germans Shepard or husky. That difference can be difficult to spot at 100 yards, though.

“Really what we’re asking is for the state to urge caution with the hunting of all canines,” said Sheehan. “If it’s a canine and living in the Adirondacks, we’re concerned about it.”

The DEC has published a guide on how to differentiate wolves and coyotes. Other differences include ear shape, pawprint size, and shape of the snout.