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Dead wolf mystery in south Michigan deepens, prompts criminal probe

State law enforcement officers have opened a criminal investigation into the killing of an endangered wolf in southern Michigan. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
  • ‘Lots of people have lots of questions,’ investigator says, after hunter claims he killed a wolf, thinking it was coyote
  • Wolf was twice the size of a coyote and 300 miles south of its known habitat
  • Killing an endangered species is punishable by up to a year in jail

April 25: Southern Michigan dead wolf mystery deepens; records suggest it was trapped
April 19: Hunter should not face charges for killing wolf, Michigan GOP lawmakers say

Michigan officials have opened a criminal probe after an endangered wolf wound up dead in southern Michigan, 300 miles from its known habitat, killed by a hunter who says he thought it was a coyote.

Lt. Andrew Turner, a district supervisor for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division, confirmed the investigation to Bridge on Tuesday.

“Certainly, it’s a crime to shoot a wolf,” Turner said, adding that the circumstances surrounding this particular wolf are “very atypical.” 

“We don’t see a lot of wolves in southern Michigan, so lots of people have lots of questions,” he added.

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Gray wolves are an endangered species in Michigan, which makes it illegal to kill them unless they pose a direct and immediate threat to human life. The misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in prison and a $50,000 fine.

DNR officials learned of the wolf kill through a Facebook post, in which a man shared photos of himself posing with the carcass. He claimed to have shot an “absolutely huge coyote” in southern Michigan.

It took Brian Roell, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, one look at the photos to know the animal wasn’t a coyote.

“I said, ‘we’re going to need to get some samples from that,’” he told Bridge Michigan in an interview Tuesday.

When contacted by state officials, the man said he had shot the animal while legally hunting with a guide in Calhoun County. He said he believed the 84-pound wolf was a coyote — an animal that rarely reaches half that size.

There is no bag limit for coyotes in Michigan, and hunters are not required to report their kill. By the time DNR learned about the kill, the wolf’s carcass had already been sent to a taxidermist. 

DNR officials took DNA samples, sending them to genetic labs in California, Ontario and the U.P. All three labs identified the animal as a wolf from the Great Lakes region, where wild populations exist only in the U.P., Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and northern Ontario.

Experts say wolves have not roamed southern Michigan for more than a century, and they believe there is no viable wolf habitat in the region. That begs the question: Could this wolf make it all the way to Calhoun County with no one noticing? 

Wolves can travel vast distances. In one instance, a wandering wolf from Michigan got as far as Missouri before a farmer shot it with an arrow.

To reach southern Michigan by foot, this wolf likely would have needed to cross the 4-mile wide Straits of Mackinac — which have not fully frozen since 2022— and then pass through populated areas without being detected or hit by a car. 

“There’s a chance,” Roell said, “but I’m skeptical myself.”

So is Nancy Warren, an Upper Peninsula resident who is executive director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition.

“How could they mistake an 84-pound animal for a coyote?” Warren asked. “There are so many things that just don’t fit.”

Asked whether it’s plausible that an experienced coyote hunter, a guide, and a taxidermist all misidentified the animal, Roell replied that “that’s a good question. I hope the law enforcement officers are asking that.”

Turner, the DNR law enforcement officer, declined to discuss specifics of the ongoing investigation.

The endangered species law doesn’t make exceptions for cases of mistaken identity. Warren recalled one example, when a participant in a U.P. coyote hunting contest accidentally shot a much smaller wolf.

The hunter was prosecuted, and a letter from Warren persuaded the judge that, rather than jail time or fines, the man should be ordered to take a wolf education course.

Once the southern Michigan wolf’s genetic tests came back positive, the DNR seized its remains last week. A necropsy was due to be performed Tuesday.

There are an estimated 630 wild wolves in Michigan, all of them in the U.P. The animal’s protected status is controversial, with some pushing to hunt wolves while others call for continued protections.

Don’t expect to see more of them in south Michigan anytime soon, Roell said.

"There is not suitable habitat in the southern Lower Peninsula to even remotely think there will ever be a population of wolves,” he said.

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