Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks learned today that the animal likely responsible for a rash of eastern Montana livestock depredations last year was a domestic wolf, and not a wild Rocky Mountain gray wolf.
The domestic wolf was suspected of killing more than 120 sheep and injuring a number of others in eight different incidents in Dawson, Garfield and McCone counties from December 2005 and July 2006.
Although there was some question early on about the animal's genetic origin, FWP authorized affected landowners, USDA Wildlife Services, and county predator-control specialists to kill the elusive animal. The animal was eventually killed by federal agents on a Garfield County ranch east of Jordan last November.
To determine the animal's origin and genetic make up, samples were sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon and to Dr. Bob Wayne's genetics laboratory at UCLA's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in California.
Both labs determined independently that the animal did not come from, nor was the animal's genetics consistent with, wild free-ranging wolf populations in the Northern Rockies, the Midwest, or Canada.
The genetic experts concluded that the animal was a product of human-manipulated breeding in a domestic, captive situation.
"This individual displays classic characteristics of being a domestic wolf," said Dyan Straughan, a forensic scientist at the National Forensics Laboratory. "The hodgepodge mixture of DNA found does not occur naturally in wild wolves in North America."
Lab results revealed DNA from three different sources, including maternal DNA from the Great Lakes region, paternal DNA from the lower 48 states, and DNA closely related to wolves in Alaska. It is the presence of all three DNA sources that preclude the possibility of the animal being a wild wolf.
The carcass's orange color, small foot size and general appearance also did not match typical wild, free ranging wolves. Other physical evidence also suggest that the animal had been in captivity, including long claws, tartar stains on the teeth, and teeth that were in relatively good condition compared to most four-year-old wild wolves.
"The National Forensics Laboratory in particular has an extensive DNA library of wild North American wolves, captive domestic wolves, and wolf-dog hybrids for comparison," said Carolyn Sime, FWP’s wolf program coordinator. "They have run over a thousand samples and maintain the most extensive reference collection anywhere so we have confidence in their results."
Montana law requires that any captive, domestic, or hybrid wolf that is more than half wolf to be permanently tattooed and registered with FWP. State law also requires that any escape, release, transfer, or other change in disposition of such animals be reported to FWP. Financial liability for property damage caused by these animals is the responsibility of the owner.
Sime said no one knows where the animal came from, how it arrived in eastern Montana, or when it arrived. "There were no permanent markings or tattoos on this animal, which are required by law."
Anyone with information on this domestic wolf is urged to call Montana's violation hotline at 1-800-TIP-MONT (1-800-847-6668).