Friday, March 21, 2008

Wolves at the door

The National Wildlife Service has confirmed that the canid that killed at least 13 sheep in Shelburne, Mass., last fall was a gray wolf, and that it appears to be wild, not an escaped captive. The wolf itself was shot and killed when it returned for another meal at the farm; undigested lamb bones and wool were found in its stomach.

Biologists are puzzled by the wolf's appearance so far from any known established population. The nearest packs of gray wolves are in Quebec and Ontario. Some gray wolves are occasionally seen in Northern Maine, but they aren't believed to be established there.


Before last fall's visitation by the young, 85-pound male, the gray wolf was thought to have been extirpated -- that is, locally extinct -- from Massachusetts since before the civil war. As far as I can learn, there have not been any further sightings of wolves in the area, but that's one of the hallmarks of wolves: you don't see them. The mere fact that this guy was seen taking sheep one day and shot and killed the next makes me wonder if he was as healthy as folks are saying. He also killed a large number of animals, eating only a few bites of each. This is also unusual behavior for a healthy wolf or even a coyote. It's more like a dog.

His appearance and confirmation is probably going to start a movement to reintroduce this top-level predator into its former range in New England. Let's hope that it isn't done as willy-nilly as it was done in the areas surrounding the Great Lakes, where wolves were "reintroduced" into places where there was no historical evidence they had ever lived, and where the only food source for them is domestic livestock. A pack of wolves preying on a flock of sheep can make a shepherd long for the days of coyotes and domestic dogs. I know of one shepherd in Minnesota who has had livestock guardian dogs killed by introduced wolves, and who has had to increase both the number and aggression of the guard dogs that she uses just to stay ahead of the wolves.

There's historical evidence that my part of New Hampshire was, in fact, home to wolves. So if there's going to be reintroduction, it will probably happen around me. I hope that the wildlife biologists have the common sense to work with livestock producers before the killing starts. They can have us working with them, or they can have us working against them. It's as simple as that, and it's entirely up to them.