Wolf History

By the latter half of the 19th century, most wolves in the northeast had been killed or driven out.  Forests had been cut down or burned and had been replaced by farm land.  Natural prey for wolves such as deer, moose, caribou and beaver were virtually extirpated and in their place were livestock.

Through the 19th century, at least one species of wolf (the eastern wolf) lived throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and southeast Canada.  The eastern wolf is the smaller of the two wolf species in North America weighing on average 50-70 lbs.  Due to their smaller size, they feed primarily on deer and beaver and, therefore, their geographic range is limited to the range of prey species.  DNA evidence of two wolves killed in Maine and New  York in the 19th century found them to be eastern wolves.  Due to a lack of museum specimens upon which to conduct DNA analysis, it is not known if gray wolves are native to the northeast U.S.   It seems likely, however, that they did range throughout the northern regions and higher elevations of New York and New England where larger prey species such as moose and caribou were present while deer were absent.

As U.S. wolf populations were decimated in the 19th century, the coyote took advantage of the absence of its greatest natural enemy by expanding its range north and east.  As they did so, coyotes that roamed north of the Great Lakes came into contact and interbred with some of the remaining eastern wolves in Canada.  These hybrids are known in Canada as Tweed wolves and live primarily in an area across southern Ontario.  The wolf/coyote hybrids expanded their range, crossed the St. Lawrence River and reached Maine by the 1930’s.  All coyotes in Maine and the rest of New England as well as New York are now more accurately referred to as “coywolves”.  Coywolves now number in the thousands just in Maine alone, and they now occupy virtually all habitat from the southeast U.S. north and east to and including Newfoundland and southern Labrador.  Their average size is larger than a coyote and smaller than an eastern wolf, although some coywolves are as large as eastern wolves.

The gray wolf is a more recent resident of North America, reaching this continent from Asia via the Bering Strait.  It is primarily a more northerly wolf that lives from Alaska to Labrador, although its range formerly extended south into Mexico along the Continental Divide.  The gray wolf favors higher elevations and northern forests and plains, taiga and tundra where larger species such as bison, elk, moose, caribou and musk oxen are predominant.  Gray wolves were virtually eliminated in the U.S. by the 1930’s, after an extermination campaign led by the federal government.  Recent wolf reintroductions into Idaho and Wyoming by the federal government have greatly bolstered the naturally occurring relict population.

In eastern North America, gray wolves occupy areas around the Great Lakes, as well as much of Ontario, Quebec and Labrador.  There is growing evidence (in the form of dead wolves) that gray and eastern wolves are interbreeding, much as coyotes and eastern wolves hybridized to form the coywolf.  A wolf killed in Massachusetts in 2007 was labeled an “eastern gray wolf” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  While DNA evidence indicates that while a small number of “pure” gray wolves have reached the northeast U.S., it seems more likely that natural wolf recolonization of the northeast will result from gray/eastern wolf hybrids dispersing from Canada and crossing the St. Lawrence River.  The range of the eastern wolf presently extends south to the St. Lawrence (see map) and there is growing evidence of eastern wolf range expanding and gray wolves moving into eastern wolf range from the north and west.    

The eastern wolves of Quebec’s Papineau-Labelle Reserve are just sixty miles from New York while the larger wolves (gray/eastern hybrid?) of Quebec’s Laurentide Reserve are less than seventy five miles from Maine.  There is a widespread misconception that the St. Lawrence River and adjacent lands serve as a barrier to wildlife migration.  In fact, the river serves as a filter across which some wildlife travel while others do not.  Wildlife species such as moose, lynx and fisher have been documented crossing from south to north while coywolves that now inhabit all of the northeast crossed from north to south.  It only stands to reason that the remarkably intelligent and resourceful wolf can and will do the same thing if only allowed to live.

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