With or without help, wolf may soon return to Northeastern U.S. Canadian gray wolves expand range to within 40 miles of Maine border


As the endangered gray wolf makes a comeback in the Rocky Mountains and Upper Midwest, some conservationists are training their eyes on the Adirondacks as the next target for reintroducing the great predator. But the wolves may be way ahead of them.

Scientists say that wild Canadian wolves, following an ancient territorial imperative, are expanding their range in Quebec toward the United States.

A new study commissioned by the Wildlife Conservation Society places them within 40 miles of the Maine border. At least one wolf, and maybe more, has entered the state.

The findings spotlight a host of scientific and political complexities involving wolf recovery in the Northeast.

Wolf's prospects in Maine

In Maine, the study found, more space and less human activity make the prospects for the long-term re-establishment of the eastern timber wolf, a subspecies of gray wolf, more promising than in northern New York state's Adirondacks.

Moreover, the study says, the Adirondacks are so isolated from the wolf populations living in Canada that natural recolonization is unlikely there.

Some conservationists and scientists see natural recolonization as cheaper and less likely to stir opposition than capturing packs and flying them in from somewhere else, as was done recently in Yellowstone National Park. More than 50 wolves in 10 packs now live there.

But natural recovery may not be as simple as it looks. Some scientists say, for instance, that the wolf gene pool might be seriously diluted by the Northeast's ubiquitous coyotes. With the extirpation of wolves throughout most of the United States a century ago, coyotes have appeared in large numbers in the Northeast after expanding their range from the Southwest.

Left to themselves, wolf populations tend to expand until they inhabit all suitable territory available. Expansion often occurs when one member of a pack strikes out alone; a wolf can travel as much as 500 miles in search of a mate.

In southeastern Canada, where the eastern timber wolf is abundant, geneticists have found evidence that interbreeding between wolves and coyotes has been common.

If the same thing were to happen in the Northeastern United States, wolves might eventually become so hybridized that their identify would be blurred. The identity of the Southern red wolf has been clouded by such interbreeding. Some experts consider it a bona fide subspecies of wolf, while others say it is a wolf-coyote hybrid.

To avoid hybridization

Some scientists say hybridization might be avoided in the Northeast by following the Yellowstone model and transplanting packs of "pure" timber wolves from northern Quebec, where there are no coyotes. Presumably, as has happened in the Rockies, the ready availability of wolf mates, a cohesive pack structure and the wolves' sheer numbers would lead members of the packs to ignore coyotes as mates and to kill them or drive them away.

"The Yellowstone wolves have killed dozens of coyotes," said Dr. Robert K. Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied wolf and coyote genetics. By contrast, he said, "our data suggest that wolves mate with coyotes where wolves are few and coyotes are abundant."

If people want to restore wolves to the Northeast, he said, "they shouldn't piddle around with a few, they should do it in earnest" by bringing in four or five intact packs.

The developing debate is the latest chapter in an American recovery story that began when the gray wolf became the first animal to be listed as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. Although thousands of wolves still live in Canada and Alaska, preying largely on deer, elk and moose, the federal law requires that wolves be protected in the contiguous 48 states, where they were long ago exterminated in most of their historic range by farmers, ranchers, bounty hunters and government agents.

Some 2,000 wolves in northern Minnesota were assigned the less serious status of threatened, and that population, along with some Canadian wolves, has now expanded into Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. About 100 wolves now live in each of those two states, and their gradual arrival has prompted relatively little outcry.

Wolves also expanded naturally into Montana's Glacier National

Park in the 1980s, where there are now about 100 in about 10 packs. In an attempt to speed the re-establishment of wolves throughout the northern Rockies, wolves from western Canada were introduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in early 1995.

But the eastern timber wolf remains absent from the United States. That subspecies originally included both Eastern and Midwestern wolves, but taxonomists now consider the Midwestern wolves part of the Rocky Mountain subspecies instead, and federal scientists have accepted the revision. That leaves the timber wolves of eastern Canada as the sole members of their subspecies.

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