2018, May 16: Wolf?

On Wednesday, May 16, 2018, a rancher spotted and shot a large wolf that was approaching the livestock on their farm near Denton, Montana, USA. Legally, the rancher was allowed to protect their animals, but any wolves killed needed to be reported to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) services; so the call was made and Sgt. Kyle Andersene, a warden with the FWP, came out to look the dead wolf over.

        Except Andersene wasn't exactly sure what she was looking at. It was definitely wolf-like... but it wasn't exactly a wolf.

        Andersene was interviewed by a local reporter for KXLO Country Radio. In the interview Andersene explained "Based on the photos, we have some doubts as to whether it was a pure-bred wolf, or a hybrid or a wild dog of sorts." Compared to a pure-bred wolf, the animal's teeth were too short, the front paws were too small, the claws and ears were too long, and the shaggy fur coat was just odd. The story about the animal and the audio interview with Andersene were posted to the KXLO website on May 18, along with a photo of the odd animal.

Wolf?
Wolf? [Larger version here]

        The photo, while interesting, had a problem... it failed to give a good idea of what the animal's actual size was. The forced perspective with the animal in front and the woman in the background gives the impression the animal is quite large, and that probably helped add to what came next: rampant speculation.

        The KXLO webpage, like many news site, was set up to post comments left by visitors; and it soon became apparent that many of the visitors to the article didn't feel the animal was anything normal. One person claimed it was a picture of a malnourished grizzly bear cub. Another thought it might be a 'dire wolf,' a prehistoric animal that is supposed to be extinct. There was also some who thought the animal might be one of the legendary Dogmen, a humanoid with dog characteristics that some believe are being covered up by the government.

        Some commentors thought the odd animal might be connected to a mystery animal that was shot in Montana back in 1886. This 1886 creature was called by various names -- such as "shunka warakin" and "ringdocus" -- and was described as a sort of wolf-hyena-hybrid that terrorized livestock until it was shot... and I will be researching that story separately at some point in the future, just so you know.

        In any case, speculation became so wild that by May 24, just eight days after the animal was first encountered, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks service felt the need to release a statement regarding the animal, along with more pictures. The new pictures made the actual size of the mystery canid far more clear.

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New pictures from the Montana FWP. [Larger version here]

The FWP statement says that it is known the animal was a young non-lactating female canid, and that because wolf specialists said the animal was not a pure-bred wolf "social media was quick to pronounce the animal as everything from a wolf to a wolf hybrid to something mythical." The statement then says the FWP would be DNA testing the animal's carcass to identify what canids it was related to, "rather than guess," and that they would have results back anywhere from weeks to months later.

        KXLO took a more proactive approach to cutting the speculation: they pulled down their article. It was already way too late, of course... on May 25, the story went national, then international.

        Of course, the most likely identification for this animal is that it's just a wolf-dog hybrid that was hunting alone; and residents of Montana now have a wait of weeks or months before this may be confirmed by the FWP's DNA testing. As for the rest of the world? Well, if it's any indication, here's the title of the article on the matter presented in the SF Gate website of San Francisco, California, on May 29: "Is it a werewolf or Big Foot? Mysterious furry creature turns up in Montana."

        I suspect I'll be seeing this story crop up again and again for a long time, no matter what the results.

June 18, 2018: The Results

        Tissue samples from the animal had been sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service orensic lab in Asheland, Oregon to be identified, and three separate tests all came back with the same genetic results: the 'mysterious animal' was a full-blooded gray wolf, from the northern Rocky Mountains. The animal's unusual appearance and the suggestive nature of the photos were likely most at fault for the speculation that made the story go viral; but all features of the animal are within accepted range of variation for the species.

        The wolf was likely just a young animal out on its own, thought to be between 2 and 3 years old, and may have just had a rough time leading to the unusual unkempt appearance of its fur. She measured 45 inches from nose to rump, and weighed in at 84.5 pounds, so was no giant as the initial photo implied. Now, only time will tell us if the story gets turned into something else.