A Missouri mystery: Timber wolf or coyote?

From high up in a tree stand, the hunter poised his crossbow.

A coyote was coming into range. A big one. From the look of it, maybe even record size for Missouri.

The shaft zipped with deadly aim. But when the hunter climbed down and inspected his “coyote,” he noticed things. The muzzle was wider. The legs seemed too long, the ears too short. And it was even bigger than the bowman realized.

This, he thought with rising panic, was no Howard County coyote.

Missouri, with its ever-growing bear census — perhaps 650 statewide — and smattering of mountain lions, has had only two wolf sightings in the last decade.

Perhaps one more as of Nov. 2.

The Missouri Department of Conservation got a call. The hunter said he’d been inside the Franklin Island Conservation Area, where he was licensed to hunt both deer and coyote.

But wolves are listed as a protected species in Missouri. The worried bowman, who asked to stay anonymous, wasn’t in trouble, despite regulations against killing a mountain lion, bear or wolf unless they present a danger. This kill was an honest case of mistaken identity, the department decided.

Word spread fast about the carcass heading to the department’s Columbia location. Seasoned biologists and animals agents crowded in, eager to see such a rare sight.

It weighed in at 81 pounds.

“Yeah, I think it’s a timber wolf,” said Jeff Beringer, a top mammal biologist.

Was the immature male someone’s “pet?” No tattoos or transponder tags. No collar or evidence of one.

Biologists inspected paws, toes, nails for the calluses that develop from the pacing of a caged animal. Nothing.

No lice, mange or broken teeth, either.

“A very healthy, strong specimen,” said Beringer. “Probably on a walkabout, and probably from one of the lake states.”

The necropsy of stomach contents also will offer clues.

“If we find a half-eaten taco then we’ll think this was probably somebody’s pet. But I don’t expect we’ll see anything more than what we guess would be in there,” he said. More like a diet of rabbits, voles and squirrels.

DNA has been sent to an Oregon lab, but the origins of this creature won’t be known for more than a month.

If the sample genes cry “wolf ” in this case, the old record of a 74-pound coyote will hold. If it’s a coyote, however, the department will release the body to the hunter.

Timber wolves, also known as gray wolves, once lived in northern Missouri, but were gone by the late 1800s. Two years ago, a 103-pound female killed in Carroll County came from a wolf pack up north, DNA showed. Same as the one shot in Grundy County in 2002.

But there are some wolves in Missouri. From the 63 wooded acres in Eureka about 20 minutes from St. Louis, neighbors sometimes hear their howls at the Endangered Wolf Center.

“No, that animal, if it were a wolf, wasn’t one of ours,” said Regina Mossotti, director of care and conservation. “We don’t have any timber wolves here.”

Coordinating with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the center has reintroduced dozens of Mexican grays and reds into the wilds of New Mexico and North Carolina. Never in Missouri.

The center was founded in 1971 by Marlin Perkins, known for his TV show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

“Only 58 Mexican gray wolves are left in the wild,” she said. Red wolves are not much better, numbering around 100, and all living in North Carolina. “If it wasn’t for Marlin Perkins we’d probably have no more Mexican or Red wolves at all in the world.

“But the deer population is skyrocketing at record levels in Missouri. If you ask me, we need wolves. Look at Yellowstone….”

The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park was an experiment back in 1995. After much debate and political haggling, 31 were brought from Alberta to the huge national park.

“We have 90 wolves right now,” said Erin Stahler, who studies them daily. “I’d also say the wolves here definitely have a bright future.”

Hearing about the animal shot in Missouri, she looked at photos. “It doesn’t look like one of our wolf lines. I’d guess it’s from Minnesota,” she said.

In Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, timber wolves were removed from the endangered species list. Wisconsin is opening a hunt until February, allowing a kill of 116 creatures. Minnesota’s hunt, open until November, is allowing 400 to be killed. So far, between the two states, around 90 wolves have been shot.

Stahler is not against hunting wolves, if the populations can bear it. “If it helps to ease public anxiety by having a wolf harvest season, then do it. It lets humans feel in control. People and their livelihoods come first.”

Besides, she said, “After all this time, we’ve learned at least one thing about wolves.

“They are very resilient animals.”