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My, what wolf-like DNA you have, grandma...

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By Joyce Campbell
Methow Valley News

Methow Valley News article by Joyce Campbell on identifying wolves using DNA.

With scientists and wolf experts disagreeing on photo and visual evidence, DNA may be the new standard for wolf identification

When is a wolf really a wolf?

Public wildlife agencies and conservation group members are working to confirm the presence of the gray wolf in the North Cascades in the wake of a wave of photos and reported observations.

"We have a pack of something around," said John Rohrer, wildlife biologist for the Methow Valley Ranger District. So far, only individual animals have been photographed, but there have been a number of sightings of multiple animals, said Rohrer.

"We have no documented packs or breeding pairs in Washington state," said Harriet Allen, endangered species manager for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Lone wolves have been confirmed as recently as last week. Two wolves were road-killed in two separate incidents near Tumtum, northwest of Spokane.

"There's a variety of opinions on what we have or don't have," said Rohrer. Wildlife experts from Alberta to Montana reviewed his remote camera photo taken on June 8, and they could not agree.

"One said it wasn't a wild wolf. One said there was no reason why it wasn't," said Rohrer. A Canadian biologist said it looked just like the coastal wolves in British Columbia, while another said it was too petite and had the wrong color.

The gray wolf, also known as the timber wolf, ranges in color from black to gray to white. Gray wolves in Montana weigh from 80 to 110 pounds and are up to 30 inches high at the shoulder and up to six feet long.

"Any piece of evidence by itself can be criticized," said Rohrer. "Evidence is mounting, and looking at it as a whole, there is probably a wolf pack, maybe more than one."

Verifying a wolf observation is not a simple task. Hybridization of wolves with dogs and possibly coyotes has complicated identifying wild wolves.

"I think DNA evidence is becoming the new standard," said Scott Fitkin, the WDFW biologist who is leading fieldwork to confirm and monitor wolf observations in the Methow Valley.

"Whats new is the ability to determine if a sample is a wolf-hybrid," said Allen. A lab in California that specializes in canids can tell if a hair or scat sample is a wolf, a dog or a coyote, said Allen. The lab has an extensive wolf DNA data bank and can differentiate populations of wolves.

Traditionally, specimens and diagnostic photos, or observations (visual or auditory) by trained biologists were considered "confirmed" observations, according to Fitkin.

Fitkin and his crew of two research assistants will primarily use howling surveys and remote cameras in the Twisp River and Libby Creek areas, where there have been recent reports of wolf observations.

Two teams from Conservation Northwest are supporting the WDFW's monitoring with remote cameras, said Marlo Mytty, citizen wildlife monitoring coordinator for the organization. The camera teams consist of 10 to 12 part time volunteers monitoring four cameras in various locations from the Twisp River to the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness area. One team is investigating older observations, and a second team is moving cameras and researching new sightings.

Anyone may report gray wolf observations by calling the toll-free Washington Wolf Hotline and leaving your contact information at (888) 584-9038.

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