Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Officials don't know if predator was wolf or where it came from

By MIKE STARK Of The Gazette Staff

Was it a wolf or wasn't it?

The mysterious, sheep-killing predator shot and killed a month ago between Jordan and Circle was initially thought to be a wolf.

But now, wildlife officials aren't so sure.

"Frankly, it has mixed characteristics," said Carolyn Sime, head of the wolf program for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Some clues indicate that it's not a wolf from among the 1,200 or so that live in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The animal shot in Garfield County in early November had shades of orange, red and yellow in its fur, unlike the Northern Rockies wolves, which tend more toward browns, blacks and grays.

The orangish coat may be more indicative of wolves that roam the upper Great Lakes region, Sime said.

The animal also had long claws and teeth in good condition, somewhat unusual for a 4-year-old wolf, raising the possibility it might be a hybrid that had spent some time in captivity, Sime said.

On the other hand, the wolf was fairly large at 106 pounds with a big head and hunting skills, which suggests it was wild, Sime said.

"Right now," Sime said, "we're just as curious as everyone else."

Whatever it was, it had landowners in McCone, Garfield and Dawson counties on alert for months. About 120 sheep were killed and others were hurt in a series of attacks that started about a year ago.

The animal roamed wide swaths of the landscape, occasionally attacking sheep before moving on only to circle back later. Several landowners were given permits to shoot if it was seen attacking livestock, but it was never caught in the act.

The animal eluded trackers for months until this fall, when footprints were spotted in deep snow. Agents with Wildlife Services shot it from the air Nov. 2.

The animal was initially reported as a wolf, but closer inspection raised concerns about the identification.

Muscle tissue has been sent to the University of California Los Angeles, where scientists have been analyzing DNA from the Northern Rockies wolf population and putting together a sort of family tree.

The animal's carcass was sent to the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore., for genetic analysis.

The work could take several months to complete.

Sime said that if the animal is a wolf that came in from the Rockies or Canada or the upper Midwest, the genetic testing should provide clear evidence. It wouldn't be the first time that a wolf has wandered hundreds of miles. In recent years, wolves from Yellowstone have been found in Utah and Colorado.

"If it's neither of those, the question becomes 'OK, what is this animal and where is it from?' " Sime said. "The uncertainty level goes up a lot."

  • Billings Gazette
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