Wolf or coyote? Nature mystery in Nevada solved with DNA testing

Three wolves roaming the mountains of northeastern Nevada would have been remarkable for a state without an established wolf population. But a recent sighting of a trio of wolf-like animals in that area turned out to be a false alarm after research and a battery of genetic tests showed the creatures are almost certainly coyotes, the Nevada Department of Wildlife reports. said.

Coyotes are common throughout Nevada, also in some of the big cities. Wolves are not, and they are rarely seen in the state despite populating surrounding regions in Idaho, Oregon and Northern California. Nevada conservationists said Las Vegas Review Journal in 2017, it was confirmed that a lone wolf had been spotted within state lines – the first in nearly a century.

So when a government-contracted helicopter crew spotted three animals that looked like wolves over the rural Merritt Mountain ranch area in March, their potential discovery led to a full-fledged investigation. The wildlife department said its own biologists have conducted further helicopter and ground surveys to collect hair, fecal and urine samples believed to belong to the mysterious creatures. The samples underwent DNA analyzes at two independent laboratories and the results showed with 99.9% certainty that they came from coyotes, officials said.

“While initial observations indicated the possibility of wolves in the area, DNA results from the samples collected indicated that these animals were in fact coyotes,” Alan Jenne, the department's director, said in a statement. “We appreciate the dedication of our biologists assisting laboratory staff and the public's cooperation during this process, and we will continue to monitor the area for evidence of wolf presence.”

“We understand the significance of such sightings and the importance of accurate identification,” Jenne's statement continued. “NDOW will continue to work closely with state and federal agencies to uphold our mission to protect Nevada's ecosystems and wildlife, while also keeping transparency a top priority in all our communications with the public.”

Hunters have certainly confused wolves and coyotes before. In January, a hunter in southwestern Michigan harvested what he thought was a large coyote. The hunter discovered through subsequent DNA testing that the animal was actually a gray wolf, normally found exclusively in the state's Upper Peninsula. CBS Detroit reported, citing the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Previously, in the fall of 2022, New York environmental officials confirmed that an animal captured during a coyote hunt in the state last year was indeed a wolf.

And, in 2018, a huge creature that apparently belongs to an unrecognizable wolf-like species in Montana, after undergoing tests, it was determined that he was also a gray wolf. Prior to testing, the wolf's seemingly unusual features had gone so far as to spark “Bigfoot” rumors online. Identifying the animal's species had even puzzled wildlife experts in the area, with a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks representative telling The Great Falls Tribune at the time that “we have no idea what this was until we get a DNA report get back.”

—Caitlin O'Kane contributed reporting.

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