For the first time in 150 years, a female gray wolf made its way into Kentucky this past March. Tragically, the return of the now-endangered canis lupus to a part of the United States that wolves have long been absent from was only confirmed after she was dead.
James Troyer saw the gray wolf in a hay ridge while out predator hunting on his Hart County property on March 16. From 100 yards away, he suspected that the animal was a coyote and killed her.
Upon inspecting the animal he had just shot, Troyer realized something was different about her, as he says in the Courier-Journal: “I was like – wow – that thing was big! It looked like a wolf, but who is going to believe I shot a wolf?”
Kevin Raymond, a wildlife biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, indeed found that the animal was twice as big as a coyote. But wildlife officials were none too sure that the deceased animal was a gray wolf and even thought she could have been German shepherd.
DNA samples analyzed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado confirmed that the animal was an endangered gray wolf and that its genetic profile matched that of wolves from the Great Lakes region. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Oregon confirmed these findings.
Killing and importing an endangered gray wolf is against the law. Officials are not prosecuting Troyer, though, on the grounds that he mistakenly thought he was firing at a coyote, which can be hunted under Kentucky state law.
The female gray wolf showed signs that she may have been in captivity. Wolves are, of course, natural carnivores; in the wild, their diet requires that they crush bones, a practice that results in them having less plaque on their teeth. Like hunting gray wolves, importing them in Kentucky is also illegal.
Gray wolves could once be found throughout the 48 lower U.S. states until ranchers and hunters nearly eradicated them in the 1930s. Their populations are starting to make a comeback in the northern Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes region; they have been known to roam over great distances. In 2011, a gray wolf was seen for the first time in 80 years in California.
Thanks to the welcome increase in their numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed taking them off the endangered species list.
The killing of the female gray wolf — mistaken for a coyote or a German shepherd — in Kentucky is one more reason why the wolves very much need endangered species protections. After being absent from so many parts of the United States for decades, for over a century in some places, gray wolves are only just starting to make a comeback. Why take away their chances for survival just as they are starting to thrive again?
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