A strange-looking canine creature shot in central Montana in May was a young gray wolf, even if its unusual features fueled speculation it was some other species or hybrid, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said Monday.
DNA from the animal was tested at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensic laboratory in Ashland, Ore., which confirmed it was a young Canis lupus.
The lab compared the animal’s genetic markers with thousands of other samples from wolves, coyotes and dogs, confirming it is a gray wolf from the northern Rocky Mountains, said Mary Curtis, a Fish and Wildlife Service geneticist at the Oregon lab.
“In this case there was very, very little if any support of the animal being a dog, coyote or hybrid,” Curtis said. “It was very strongly placed in the wolf category.”
“It’s not that surprising,” Ty Smucker, an FWP wolf management specialist, said of the DNA results confirming the animal was a gray wolf. “It’s either going to be a gray wolf or a dog.”
No wolf packs are established in central Montana.
However, Smucker noted, wolves travel great distances and young dispersing animals show up occasionally.
Wolves have arrived in central Montana from the Yellowstone National Park area population to the south. Last winter, a young wolf was shot in Ulm, which is 11 miles southwest of Great Falls. It had dispersed from a pack in the Livingston area north of Yellowstone. Wolves also disperse from established packs along the Rocky Mountains to the west.
The wolf was legally shot on May 16 by a rancher near Denton, which is 90 miles east of Great Falls.
It’s unusual appearance — small feet, short legs and big ears — led to wild speculation on what it was as photos circulated worldwide via social media.
“That could very well be what’s being called Dogman,” one Facebook poster suggested. “They’re spotted each day and the government quells any and all reports. Several people report being strong-armed into keeping quiet about their reports by men wearing black suits. These are just facts. Look into if you don’t believe it.”
The story’s legs surprised Smucker more than the DNA results.
“The folks who shot it posted pictures on Facebook, and then it just went bananas,” Smucker said.
Confusion about the animal might be due its condition and the photos, FWP said.
“It had been shot, and it was in pretty rough shape,” Smucker said. “So it was a little difficult to tell.”
Inspection of the animal at the FWP wildlife health lab in Bozeman revealed a relatively normal looking, dark brown wolf, FWP said.
Physical variations aren’t unusual for animals, said Curtis, the Fish and Wildlife Service geneticist.
“Within species there can be variability that’s not surprising at all,” Curtis said.
Preconceptions about wolves, that they are huge animals with huge paws, may also play into the confusion, she said.
“It doesn’t suprise me you are going to run into some wolves on the smaller side,” said Curtis, who also noted the wolf was young.
The wolf was 2 to 3 years old and measured 45 inches from the tip of the nose to the rump and weighed 84.5 pounds.
FWP decided to have the wolf tested to make sure it was an actual wolf because hybrid wolf-dogs have been documented in central and eastern Montana in the past, Smucker said.
“It was unusual in the amount of social media, press attention it got,” Curits said. “We tend to see a couple, three to four wolves a month that come through. Some are hybrids.”
Scientists at the lab are able to distinguish real wolves with wolf-dog hybrids by looking at a combination of genetic markers and comparing them to a DNA database of wolves from different geographic areas such as Alaska and the northern Rockies, Curtis said.
The wolf was a non-lactating female, which means she didn’t have a litter of pups.
Any unique physical features the wolf had might also appear in her siblings or parents and may continue to be passed along by others in her family.
According to the 2017 Montana Gray Wolf Program Annual Report, the state has about 900 wolves.
Property owners in Montana have broad legal authority to shoot wolves that threaten livestock, as was the case with this wolf near Denton, FWP said.
Researchers in Canada who have studied coywolves, a coyote-wolf hybrid expanding in Canada, contacted Smucker about the possibility the animal was a coywolf. If the animal wasn’t a wolf or a dog, Smucker thought. it might be coywolf and “not a big deal.”
Then the DNA test results proved the animal was a gray wolf.
“The individual represented by LAB-1, LAB-2 and LAB-3 was a female gray wolf from the Northern Rocky Mountains (Canis lupus),” Dyan J. Straughan, a Fish and Wildlife Service forensic scientist, wrote in a genetics examination report on DNA taken from tissue samples. “It is the opinion of the undersigned examiner that this individual was not of either a gray wolf x coyote, or gray wolf x domestic dog, origin.”
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