There was once a time when Gray wolves inhabited every corner of North America, from Canada to Mexico, and in virtually every U.S. state in between. After more than a century of being hunted as a 'problem predator' however, the species has gradually been rebounding thanks to conservation measures.
But when one female gray wolf wandered into Kentucky for the first time in 150 years, its return wasn't heralded as a welcome sign of the species' recovery. That's because it was shot before anyone had the chance to celebrate.
Last March, Hart County resident James Troyer was out on his property predator hunting when he spotted what he thought was a coyote about 100 yards away. It was only after he had shot and killed the animal that he realized it probably wasn't a coyote after all, but instead an endangered grey wolf.
“I was like – wow – that thing was big!” Troyer told the Courier-Journal. “It looked like a wolf, but who is going to believe I shot a wolf?”
Even Kentucky wildlife officials were skeptical that the animal Troyer had shot was a free-roaming wild wolf -- after all, the species hadn't been spotted in the state since the mid-1800s. But now, after DNA from the mystery canine was sent for testing at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Oregon, the deceased animal has been proven to be a gray wolf.
Normally, hunters targeting grey wolves would face prosecution for killing an endangered species, but authorities have decided that Troyer had mistakenly thought it was a coyote -- an animal which can be hunted under state law.
How the wolf came to reenter Kentucky remains a mystery; the nearest known population of the species is in northern Michigan, about 600 miles away. It wouldn't be the first time, however, that a lone individual wandered into a state thought to be wolf-free. In 2011, a single gray wolf briefly wandered into California, the first in nearly 90 years.