Timber Wolf killed in Missouri


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Mar 13, 2001
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Michigan wolf finds its way to Missouri
This lone wolf made a 600-mile trek, crossing the Mississippi River and countless highways before running afoul of a sheep owner.

TRENTON, Mo. -- Call him Ishmael. Or perhaps Marco Polo or Columbus. Whatever you call him, the lone wolf whose wanderlust drove it from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to north-central Missouri was a pioneering sort. Unfortunately for the wolf, the lower Midwest no longer has room for such large carnivores.

A Grundy County man was returning from a bowhunt on his land Oct. 23 when he said he saw the 80-pound canine peering into his sheep pen. Taking the predator for a coyote, he nocked an arrow and shot it. He realized his error when he discovered that the animal wore a numbered ear tag and a radio-tracking collar.

The hunter could have disposed of the wolf with little fear of discovery. Instead, he correctly took the carcass to Conservation Agent Jeff Berti. Conservation Department officials verified that it was a gray wolf and traced it back to its original capture site near Ironwood, Mich.

Records of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources show that the wolf killed here last month was a juvenile weighing 22 pounds when it was caught in July 1999. It was captured in a single foot-hold trap with a litter mate. Each animal was fitted with an ear tag and a radio collar.

Michigan DNR officials followed the movements of Wolf No. 18 for nine months, then lost track of it. They had a hard time believing the news when informed of the animal's death here.

"One of our wolves?" asked Michigan DNR Photographer Dave Kenyon. "No! How far is that?"

As the crow flies, the distance from Wolf No. 18's capture site to Grundy County is roughly 450 miles. By highway, or the way a wolf travels, crossing the Mississippi River and countless highways, it's more like 600 miles. That ranks among the longest wolf journeys documented by the Michigan DNR.

Young wolves, especially males, are prone to leave their birth places to carve out their own territories. Wolf No. 18 was exceptionally footloose.

"You have to wonder how many people saw this animal along the way and either kept it to themselves or told people and weren't believed," said Michigan DNR Biologist Dean Beyer.

Gray wolves, also known as timber wolves, once lived in Missouri. They were extirpated here and throughout most of the eastern United States by the end of the 19th century. Minnesota retained a wild population, which grew gradually after the species was granted protection. In recent years, Minnesota's gray wolf population has grown rapidly to a current total of 2,445. This led to the species being reclassified from endangered to threatened in Minnesota. The new classification allows more flexibility in dealing with wolves that cause problems for people.

Wolves from Minnesota have dispersed into Michigan and Wisconsin, where they have established independent populations and are classified as endangered.

Michigan's current wolf population is estimated at about 200. The Michigan DNR hopes to maintain the population at about that level. Wisconsin has an estimated 250 gray wolves, and hopes to develop a stable population of at least 350.

The Michigan wolf killed in Missouri is the first gray wolf documented here in modern times. Large coyotes and domestic dogs can resemble wolves, so Conservation Department investigators look for concrete evidence – photos, video, tracks, DNA or other physical evidence – before verifying a wolf sighting.

An animal killed by coyote hunters near Hartsburg, Mo., in 2000 at first was believed to be a wolf, but turned out to be a cross between a wolf and a dog. Though such hybrids can look very much like wolves, they lack the fear of humans that purebred wolves have.

The gray wolf is classified as federally endangered in the Midwest. However, the species has grown numerous enough in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin that federal officials are considering downgrading its listing to threatened. This would allow more flexibility in managing gray wolves when they cause problems for people. The man who shot the wolf  won't be prosecuted, since he was protecting his livestock and reasonably believed the animal was a coyote.

"For years, we have believed and told people that there were no wild wolves in Missouri," said Conservation Department Wildlife Research Biologist Dave Hamilton. "We can't say that anymore, though the likelihood of seeing a genuine gray wolf here still is extremely small." Hamilton said the Conservation Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have never stocked wolves and have no plans to restore them to Missouri. He said the state lacks wilderness areas large enough to sustain wolves without unacceptable human conflicts.

- Jim Low -

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