USFWS director says federal protections for wolves will be removed by end of year

By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson

September 1, 2020 2 Comments

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency tasked with protecting American wildlife, is getting closer to allowing trophy hunters and cattle ranchers to open season on the gray wolf, one of our nation’s most iconic—as well as most persecuted—animals.

USFWS director Aurelia Skipwith told the Associated Press in an interview this week that her agency is “working hard” to lift federal protections for gray wolves across the lower 48 states by the end of this year. “I’d say it’s very imminent,” she added.

The USFWS last year proposed a rule removing these protections: a rule nearly two million Americans opposed in comments to the agency because removing wolves from the ESA at this time could be disastrous for the long-term survival of these animals.

Skipwith claims that wolves have “biologically recovered” and that their removal from the list would demonstrate the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act: a false claim in itself, because the ESA requires that a species be recovered throughout a larger portion of its historic range to be taken off the list; wolves now inhabit approximately 15% of their historic range in the contiguous United States.

What Skipwith conveniently left out of that interview is the real reason these protections are being removed: as a handout to trophy hunters and the meat industry who have long wanted such an outcome and now have a close ally in the agency. Skipwith, who was appointed director in December last year, has had no reservations about aligning herself openly with trophy hunting interests and earlier this year she was a speaker at the annual convention of Safari Club International, one of the world’s largest gathering of trophy hunters.

Scientists have warned that the FWS proposal to delist wolves does not represent the best available science on wolf conservation. What’s more, if wolves were delisted, states will be empowered with managing wolves on their lands, and we already know what that will look like.

In 2011, Congress directed the USFWS to remove ESA protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, as a nod to agriculture and trophy hunting interests. Wolves in Wyoming were also delisted in 2017. These decisions have led to thousands of wolves being massacred across these states, using exceptionally cruel methods like being chased down by GPS-collared hounds, being caught in steel-jawed leghold traps and wire snares, and even being run down with snowmobiles or large truck.

Altogether, nearly 6,000 wolves have been killed in these and the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, where federal protections for wolves were removed ​in 2011 until a successful HSUS lawsuit returned them to the endangered species list in 2014. Of the nearly 1,500 wolves killed ​before our suit brought a stop to ​the vicious recreational hunting, trapping, snaring and hounding that was allowed during that period, many were just pups. If federal protections were to be lifted now, these are the animals who would be most at risk of being wiped out again. We simply cannot let that happen.

The beauty of a wolf inspires awe and admiration in most hearts; these are highly sentient animals with close family ties. We also rely on wolves to keep our environment in balance. These keystone native carnivores play a critical role in the ecosystems they inhabit, driving biodiversity and restoring balance. They help keep deer and elk herds strong by removing sick, weak and old animals and help reduce the spread of disease among those species, including chronic wasting disease.

On the other hand, there is no evidence that wolves pose a serious threat to livestock—which is the excuse the USFWS has most often cited for delisting them. In a report last year, Humane Society of the United States researchers compared livestock losses data released by state agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, and the USFWS, and found that the federal data was highly exaggerated and that wolves accounted for less than 1% of cattle and sheep losses in the states where they live.

The USFWS’s attack on wolves may be one of its worst actions in recent years, but it’s hardly the only one; the agency has been working assiduously to dismantle the Endangered Species Act itself. But Skipwith would do well to remember that her job is to make policies in the best interests of all Americans and American wildlife; not for the benefit of a handful of special interests. We urge her to toss this disastrous plan before it’s too late. Wolves have a powerful ally in the majority of Americans who value them and want to see them protected; with their support, we stand ready to fight with all of our might against this shameless abuse of power.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

Endangered Species Protections Sought for Rare Wolf in Southeast Alaska

SITKA, Alaska— The Center for Biological Diversity, Alaska Rainforest Defenders and Defenders of Wildlife petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today to give Endangered Species Act protections to the Alexander Archipelago wolf in Southeast Alaska.

This rare gray wolf subspecies, which inhabits the coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, faces numerous threats. Legal trapping recently killed 165 wolves in one key population on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. Meanwhile the Trump administration is pushing to open hundreds of thousands of acres of wolf habitat to clearcut logging.

“These beautiful wolves are more threatened than ever,” said Shaye Wolf, a scientist at the Center. “They’re being bombarded by clearcut logging, unprecedented trapping and hunting, and chronic management failures by state and federal officials. We’re dangerously close to losing these rare wolves forever. They urgently need the protections of the Endangered Species Act if they’re going to survive.”

Today’s petition asks the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect Alexander Archipelago wolves in Southeast Alaska as a “distinct population segment” due to the concentration of threats and population declines in the region. By 2018 the largest wolf population on Prince of Wales Island had declined by an estimated 60% over the previous 15 years due to escalating threats. New genetic evidence indicates this population is in danger from high levels of inbreeding.

“Over many years, optimistic management of Southeast Alaska’s small, isolated wolf populations by Alaska’s Board of Game and its Fish and Game Department has led to a succession of unfortunate surprises on Prince of Wales Island,” said Larry Edwards with Alaska Rainforest Defenders. “Now, a new genetics study of these wolves shows that populations in three of the region’s game management units, including POW, are more inbred than even the troubled Isle Royale population in Michigan. It notes there is a ‘hidden and insidious’ threat of ‘an extinction vortex’ for populations like these.”

Clearcut logging on the Tongass National Forest and surrounding state and private lands destroys and fragments the old-growth forest habitat that wolves rely on for raising pups and hunting their primary prey, Sitka black-tailed deer. Road construction allows increased access for trappers and hunters.

“Alexander Archipelago wolves in Southeast Alaska are facing the loss and fragmentation of key habitat and significant depletion from poorly managed hunting and trapping,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director of Defenders of Wildlife. “On top of extensive historical logging and roadbuilding in the region, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing massive clearcuts and eliminating roadless protections in Tongass National Forest. The Forest Service has turned its back on the promised transition away from old-growth clearcutting, so Defenders of Wildlife is stepping in to protect the wolves.”

In 2016, under the revised Tongass National Forest management plan, the U.S. Forest Service authorized intensive old-growth and second-growth logging and road building concentrated in the wolves’ most important habitat areas.

In 2019 the Trump administration worsened this threat with a plan to eliminate long-standing roadless protections on 9 million undeveloped acres of the Tongass. The proposal, which would open vast areas of previously protected habitat to logging and road building, is expected to take effect later this year.

High levels of killing from legal and illegal trapping and hunting further threaten wolves with extinction.

On Prince of Wales Island, an unprecedented number of wolves were killed during the 2019-2020 trapping season. A total of 165 wolves were legally trapped out of a population last estimated at 170 wolves in fall 2018, not including wolves killed illegally. This alarming slaughter occurred after the state ignored the recommendations of its own wolf management program and eliminated limits on the number of wolves that could be trapped or hunted.

In 2016 the Fish and Wildlife Service denied Endangered Species Act protection to Alexander Archipelago wolves. The agency primarily based its decision on the claim that wolf populations in British Columbia were stable, while acknowledging the more precarious status of wolves in Southeast Alaska.

Threats to the wolves in Alaska have escalated since 2016, due to inadequate federal and state management and enforcement and the Trump administration’s plan to end protections for much of their habitat.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act would require state and federal agencies to better manage threats to the wolves, including measures that protect their habitat and limit hunting and trapping.

Alexander Archipelago wolf
Alexander Archipelago wolf. Photo credit: ©Robin Silver / Center for Biological Diversity Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

AK: Fairbanks man snared dozens of moose to use as wolf bait, troopers say

A Fairbanks trapper faces misdemeanor charges after he admitted snaring more than two dozen moose to use the meat as bait for catching wolves, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported this week.

Joseph Lyndon Johnson, 24, was charged in early January after an Alaska wildlife trooper investigated a trapline the man had set, the newspaper reported, citing an affidavit for a criminal complaint.

The trooper, investigating the man’s trapline on March 21 near Hess Creek north of Fairbanks, found a trapped live wolf next to a moose carcass. He also found two marten traps, still set though the season ended weeks earlier.

The trooper set up a camera to observe the trapline. That was soon stolen.

Days later, a trooper, after flying over the area in a helicopter, found that only part of the moose remained. The moose contained markings suggesting it had been snared around its snout. Other evidence suggested it had been hauled there by sled. The wolf had been removed.

A necropsy showed the moose had been trapped in a snare.

After finding records showing Johnson had taken a wolf, the troopers received a search warrant for his home. They found the missing camera, a gray wolf, and other items showing Johnson operated the trapline.

The man admitted to snaring 25 moose to use for wolf bait, the newspaper reported, citing the affidavit.

Johnson faces four Class A misdemeanor charges, according to online court records. They include using game as animal food or bait, unlawful possession or transportation of game, and two counts for leaving the marten traps out after the season closed.

Officials with the Alaska State Troopers did not immediately provide comment on Friday.

A class A misdemeanor can bring one year in jail and a $10,000 fine, state records show.

Yellowstone’s Wolves: Infusing Wildness Into The Landscape

Yellowstone's wolf recovery program has brought stability to the park's ecosystem/NPS, Jacob W. Frank

Yellowstone’s wolf recovery program has brought stability to the park’s ecosystem/NPS, Jacob W. Frank

It was cold, right around 20 degrees below zero at Old Faithful, but that didn’t keep the excitement from bubbling up from the two women I met on the boardwalk near the famous geyser.

“Did you see the wolf? It loped right through the geyser basin!” they said, their words emphasized by the small clouds of condensation created by the temperature. It was if they were anxious to share the experience with others as if to verbally pinch themselves that it actually occurred.

Unfortunately, I had missed that sighting, but I’ve enjoyed other moments of wolf ecstasy in the park. There was the time in the Lamar Valley near Soda Butte Creek when two wolves, drawn by the squeals of an elk calf tackled by a grizzly, appeared on a rise just above the road that runs to Silver Gate at Yellowstone’s northeast entrance. Then there was the predawn howl that sliced through the backcountry quiet deep down the South Arm of Yellowstone Lake.

Going on a quarter-century since wolves were returned to the park in an ambitious gambit to make Yellowstone’s ecosystem whole and balanced once again, Canis lupus has definitely added a measure of wildness to the landscape.

“I think they’re restored. The population has been stable for about 10 years, which indicates that the kind of the up and down and the recolonization things that were necessary, have taken place. And wolves are a natural part of the ecosystem now,” said Doug Smith, who heads the park’s Wolf Project.

In some aspects there have been fits and starts to the wolf’s return. There were the initial “soft releases” back in 1995 and 1996, when wolves brought from Canada were placed in fenced in areas and fed elk meat in a bid to get them used to the setting, rather than simply freeing the predators from a truck and hoping they’d stick around.

There were the bouts of mange (2007) and canine distemper virus (1999, 2005 and 2008), and there were wolves lost to hunters beyond the park’s borders. There were the livestock depredations attributed to Yellowstone wolves that roamed far, as well.

Through it all, the wolves not only endured, but they thrived in the park. And they exhibited some behavior that some might not have expected.

“Like every living creature, there’s always a to and fro, a back and forth, and those territory boundaries are always in flux,” Smith replied when asked whether the original territories staked out back in the early years of the recovery program have held fast. “But, having said that, the location of the primary wolf territories is amazingly stable. In other words, where wolves settled in Yellowstone say the first eight, ten years, is primarily where they are now. And the wolves have divided up the landscape to be in different territories, and those territories year to year are stable.”

Through the years there have been notable white wolves, such as this alpha female from the Canyon Pack that Neal Herbert snapped in 2006/NPS, Neal Herbert

Through the years there have been notable white wolves, such as this alpha female from the Canyon Pack that Neal Herbert snapped in 2006/NPS, Neal Herbert

In other words, they’re not unlike a human family that holds onto a favored homestead through the generations.

“Wolf packs are a family, and these families get a toehold in a certain area and they’re lineages kind of keep to those certain areas on the landscape,” the wildlife biologist explained. “And so it’s in one way amazingly stable. Where wolves have settled in Yellowstone is where they are year after year.”

What has been particularly surprising, perhaps, has been the longevity of Mollie’s Pack, which was spun off from one of the original recovery packs and named for the late Mollie Beattie, who was director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the early days of the recovery program.

“We’ve studied the average lifespan of wolves and we’re evening getting into, because few people have looked at it, the average lifespan of a pack,” said Smith. “And the average is about 10-12 years, a short one could be just two or three. But Mollie’s is the outlier for the longest running pack.

“That used to be the Crystal Creek Pack that we introduced in northern Yellowstone in 1995. They lost a territorial battle, the next year, in 1996, with the Druid Peak Pack killing the alpha male, wounding the alpha female, sending (the survivors) south into Pelican Valley, and they have been there ever since in a continuous lineage that we’ve documented.

“And so this next year will be 25 years, and that’s one of the longest running wolf packs known to people.”

Along with finding the Pelican Valley empty of other wolves and to their liking, Mollie’s Pack became adept at killing bison that spent the entire year in the valley. The pack also had some pretty good alpha females through the years, believes Smith.

“They had a few key individuals that lived a long time, and I think they were the glue that held the pack together,” he said. “We don’t have solid research on this yet, but it looks like it’s females. You get a good female leader, she can hold things together. Average lifespan of a wolf is five or six years, but they can live 8, 9, 10, and we had a female live that long in Mollie’s, and so that can be the reason that a pack will subsist a long time.”

Wolf territories in Yellowstone in 2018/NPS

Today there are about 80 wolves in Yellowstone, a number that’s not quite half of the population highs seen in the early to mid-2000s. Why the decline? The answer, said Smith, is simple.

“Elk. We had then an overpopulated elk situation,” he said.

Early in Yellowstone’s history as a national park the management strategy was to kill off the predators, the wolves and cougars, primarily. That led to unrestrained elk population growth. While managers tried to deal with the large number of elk and the impact they were having on vegetation by shipping elk off to other locations “all over North America and even Mexico to re-establish elk populations where they had been lost,” noted Smith, that practice ended in 1968 and the population boomed again.

In 1995 when the first wolves were returned to Yellowstone the elk population numbered at least 19,000.

“It’s well known that when you count elk you miss a lot, and the average number you miss is roughly 30 percent, but it can be up to 50 percent,” Smith pointed out. “So that true elk population was well over 20,000.”

The wolves feasted on that population, and today it’s closer to 6,000-8,000, he said.

“That decline has occurred, and it’s probably more in fit for the environment. Again, elk hunters don’t like this because hunter success rates around the park have declined. Big issue,” said Smith. “But that was built on Yellowstone being an ‘elk farm.’ Essentially you’re growing elk in the summer and sending them out in the hunting season. Hunters liked it, but the ecosystem probably didn’t.

“And if you’re a park visitor that was looking for a well-balanced ecosystem with lots of biodiversity, you probably didn’t like it either. It’s the story of human society. Some like things, some don’t. But we do feel, ecologically, that we’re at a better point now. And wolves have declined, to a degree cougars have.”

While wolves at Isle Royale National Park ran into an inbreeding problem that prompted the National Park Service to perform a genetic rescue program of sorts by importing wolves from Canada and Michigan to the island park, Smith doesn’t foresee any genetic problems for the Yellowstone wolves for at least a century.

“We’ve looked at genetic diversity of Yellowstone wolves, and they’re equal to wolves living in northern Canada, which is largely undeveloped and a large population of wolves that has a lot of intermixing in terms of breeding,” he said. “The genetic diversity of Yellowstone right now is similar to those wolves.”

While some have questioned the wisdom of the Park Service bringing wolves into Isle Royale, saying nature should have been allowed to run its course, Smith maintains it was the only choice the agency had to prevent the park’s moose population from soaring and over-browsing the forests.

“The decline of wolves there was human-caused. So we meddled with it. I actually don’t mean to be so strong worded, because some great friends and great groups opposed that, saying it’s not natural to do this and stop meddling with nature and we’re always better off leaving things alone,” he said.  “Well, in that case it will be a lot worse off ecologically and ecosystem wise if you leave things alone. And if that’s in the cards, so be it. But the issue there is the population declined because of genetic depression.”

The genetic depression, the biologist said, was human caused because anthropogenic climate change has altered the natural cycle of ice bridges between Isle Royale and the U.S. and Canadian mainlands that allowed wolves to reach the island somewhat regularly.

“Wolves couldn’t get out there any more because the ice bridge used to form every eight out of ten years. Now it forms every two, three years out of every ten,” he explained. “So the transfer of wolves from the mainland to the island has been cut dramatically due to climate change. And secondly, there was human-introduced disease (parvovirus) there that caused the wolf population to decline that created a bottleneck. So there were two different human impacts there that caused wolves to decline.”

Spend time in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley in late spring and early summer, and again during the winter months, preferably during the day’s early and late light, and the odds of spotting one or more wolves will go up. Pitch your tent at the Slough Creek Campground and, if you’re lucky, you just might catch a howl or two from the Junction Butte or Lamar Canyon packs.

Hanging on the night air, the sound is of wildness thriving in Yellowstone.

Wolf reintroduction group confident of getting measure on ballot

Gray wolves like this one could be reintroduced to Colorado

Gray wolves like this one could be reintroduced to Colorado if an initiative is placed on the November 2020 ballot and voters approve it. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, leading the petitioning, says it has 170,000 signatures now and needs roughly 200,000 to confidently get the initiative placed on the ballot.

The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund is close to having enough signatures to get an item placed on the ballot for the November 2020 election that would ask voters to allow the reintroduction of wolves to Colorado.

Rob Edward, president of the board for the fund, told the Montrose Daily Press that, despite a short pause in the early fall from gathering signatures to raise more funds, the group has collected roughly 170,000 signatures.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of (signature) booklets out right now,” he said. “Between the ones that are out and what will happen in November, we’re confident (we will gather enough signatures.”

The group only needs 124,632 valid signatures, but when collecting them, there can be about a 30-percent attrition rate due to invalid signatures from those not registered to vote.

The RMWAF first started gathering the signatures in June and expects it will need 200,000 total to attain the needed valid signatures.

Proponents of the reintroduction of gray wolves like Edward argue the Colorado ecosystem has not been the same since wolves were eradicated around 1940. Other wild animals, like elk and deer, Edward says, have become sedentary and have negatively affected the environments around them.

“They’re not just another predator. They’re a very specific type of predator,” Edward said. “They make their prey run, they move herds around, and they them them from browsing everything to the ground.”

Those against the ballot initiative say wolves pose an unnecessary threat to livestock and cost farmers time and money.

Edward and the RMWAF don’t deny that point.

“Once there are more than just a handful of wolves in western Colorado, there’s going to be, from time to time throughout the state, some instances (when wolves attack livestock),” he said. “But what we know from the northern Rocky Mountains and other areas where wolves have been reintroduced is it’s a fraction of a percent in the whole state.”

Edward also recognizes that losing even one or two sheep or cattle could be harmful to a rancher, so the proposed law — Initiative 107 — proposes paying ranchers for any livestock killed by wolves.

If the initiative were to make it to the ballot, and if voters approved it, Colorado would be the first state where voters mandated wolves be reintroduced, rather than wildlife organizations and scientists.

Initiative 107 would direct the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop a plan to restore and manage gray wolves in Colorado “using the best scientific data available” and designed to resolve conflicts with persons engaged in ranching and farming,” the Colorado Sun reported earlier this year.

This article has been updated to show the group needs 124,632 signatures. 

What wolves’ teeth reveal about their lives

What wolves’ teeth reveal about their lives
Biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh has spent more than three decades studying the skulls of large carnivores. Here she displays a replica of a saber-toothed cat skull. At left are the skulls of a spotted hyena (in white) and a dire wolf (the black skull). Credit: Christelle Snow/UCLA

UCLA evolutionary biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh has spent more than three decades studying the skulls of many species of large carnivores—including wolves, lions and tigers— that lived from 50,000 years ago to the present. She reports today in the journal eLife the answer to a puzzling question.

In the research, Van Valkenburgh reports a strong link between an increase in broken teeth and a decline in the amount of available food, as large carnivores work harder to catch dwindling numbers of prey, and eat more of it, down to the bones.

“Broken teeth cannot heal, so most of the time, carnivores are not going to chew on bones and risk breaking their teeth unless they have to,” said Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who holds the Donald R. Dickey Chair in Vertebrate Biology.

For the new research, Van Valkenburgh studied the skulls of gray —160 skulls of adult wolves housed in the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center in Montana; 64 adult wolf skulls from Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior that are housed at Michigan Technological University; and 94 skulls from Scandinavia, collected between 1998 and 2010, housed in the Swedish Royal Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. She compared these with the skulls of 223 wolves that died between 1874 and 1952, from Alaska, Texas, New Mexico, Idaho and Canada.

Yellowstone had no wolves, Van Valkenburgh said, between the 1920s and 1995, when 31  were brought to the national park from British Columbia. About 100 wolves have lived in Yellowstone for more than a decade, she said.

In Yellowstone, more than 90% of the wolves’ prey are elk. The ratio of elk to wolves has declined sharply, from more than 600-to-1 when wolves were brought back to the national park to about 100-to-1 more recently.

In the first 10 years after the reintroduction, the wolves did not break their teeth much and did not eat the elk completely, Van Valkenburgh reports. In the following 10 years, as the number of elk declined, the wolves ate more of the elk’s body, and the number of broken teeth doubled, including the larger teeth wolves use when hunting and chewing.

The pattern was similar in the island park of Isle Royale. There, the wolves’ prey are primarily adult moose, but moose numbers are low and their large size makes them difficult to capture and kill. Isle Royale wolves had  of broken and heavily worn teeth, reflecting the fact that they consumed about 90% of the bodies of the moose they killed.

Scandinavian wolves presented a different story. The ratio of moose to wolves is nearly 500-to-1 in Scandinavia and only 55-to-1 in Isle Royale, and, consistent with Van Valkenburgh’s hypothesis, Scandinavian wolves consumed less of the moose they killed (about 70%) than Isle Royale wolves. Van Valkenburgh did not find many broken teeth among the Scandinavian wolves. “The wolves could find moose easily, not eat the bones, and move on,” she said.

Van Valkenburgh believes her findings apply beyond gray wolves, which are well-studied, to other large carnivores, such as lions, tigers and bears.

Extremely high rates of broken teeth have been recorded for large carnivores—such as lions, dire wolves and saber-toothed cats—from the Pleistocene epoch, dating back tens of thousands of years, compared with their modern counterparts, Van Valkenburgh said. Rates of broken  from animals at the La Brea Tar Pits were two to four times higher than in modern animals, she and colleagues reported in the journal Science in the 1990s.

“Our new study suggests that the cause of this tooth fracture may have been more intense competition for food in the past than in present large carnivore communities,” Van Valkenburgh said.

She and colleagues reported in 2015 that violent attacks by packs of some of the world’s largest carnivores—including lions much larger than those of today and saber-toothed cats—went a long way toward shaping ecosystems during the Pleistocene.

In a 2016 article in the journal BioScience, Van Valkenburgh and more than 40 other wildlife experts wrote that preventing the extinction of lions, tigers, wolves, bears, elephants and the world’s other largest mammals will require bold political action and financial commitments from nations worldwide.

Discussing the new study, she said, “We want to understand the factors that increase mortality in large carnivores that, in many cases, are near extinction. Getting good information on that is difficult. Studying tooth fracture is one way to do so, and can reveal changing levels of food stress in big carnivores.”

https://phys.org/news/2019-09-wolves-teeth-reveal.html

Keep the ESA unVamped

Time to Put the ESA on the Endangered List?

By Jim Robertson, President; Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting

 

Ever since President Nixon signed the bill on December 28th 1973 declaring the Endangered Species Act the law of the land, subsequent presidents (mostly his fellow Republicans) have tried to weaken, undermine or undo it. Not to be outdone, our current president (businessman Donald Trump) has taken a stab at revamping it—not that the law needed improving, as dozens of species saved from extinction, such as the peregrine falcon, the whooping crane, the American alligator (now a target of many-a sport hunter), the gray wolf (also, now, a fantasy-kill for untold sport hunters), the grizzly bear (soon to be targeted as well, if trophy hunters have their way), the Eastern red wolf (not numerous enough yet to kill), the California condor (although not hunted directly, still killed ultimately by hunters’ when condors—as with hawks vultures and eagles—ingest spent lead shotgun ammo loads that “sportsmen” trained on migratory ducks and geese) can attest.

Of course, bald eagles—our national symbol—wouldn’t even be here if not for the ESA (a fact you’d think would mean something to a currently sitting president of the United States of America).

So what would this planned (but unnecessary) “revamping” do exactly? What sort of revisions to the Endangered Species Act do Donald and his Trumpetts propose?

The Department of the Interior (namely the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service) has introduced new rules that would make it easier for them to remove a species’ ESA protections, limit any protections to guard against climate change and allow agencies to prioritize would-be developers’ or other destructive corporations’ economic factors over an animal’s population status.

An outspoken climate change denier, it’s likely that Trump is not listening to the science about our current mass extinction event either. If there were ever a time in history to defend the Endangered Species Act, we’ve reached it.

The state of Massachusetts and major environmental groups, including NRDC, Adubon, Greenpeace and the Nature Conservancy have started petitions to address this situation (check online). Here’s one that just went up today:

https://www.change.org/p/keep-gray-wolves-safe-from-slaughter/u/24984488?cs_tk=AqdVBUuM5vAXAEvpY10AAXicyyvNyQEABF8BvK-xenePBChlCRTkMAgter4%3D&utm_campaign=09958fe4df5144d69c5ee1cdd1ff153d&utm_medium=email&utm_source=petition_update&utm_term=cs

Photo Copyright Jim Robertson

Survivors of rare wolf attack in Banff recount how animal tried to drag man from tent in middle of night

Russ Fee rushed to a neighbouring campsite when he heard screaming and found a wolf trying to drag a man away

Russ Fee was camping when he heard screams coming from the neighbouring site. He rushed over and helped stop a wolf attack. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)
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Russ Fee thought the panicked voices rising from the campsite next to his were from parents whose child had gone missing — until he heard both a man and a woman desperately scream, “Help!”

Panicked himself, Fee fumbled with the zipper on his tent, finally got the mesh door open and rushed over with a lantern in hand.

At the neighbouring campsite, the Calgary man saw a wolf trying to drag something from a destroyed tent, like a dog yanking at a bone.

“It was just so much larger than any dog I’ve ever seen,” Fee told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.

Calgary Eyeopener
Rare wolf attack
00:00 08:17

A Calgary man witnessed a serious wolf attack while camping last week in Banff National Park. We hear more about what he saw. 8:17

Inside the tent was a family of four visiting Banff, Alta., from New Jersey — two young boys and their mom and dad. The father’s arm was clamped in the animal’s jaws as he tried to fend off the wolf.

Fee made a snap decision on how to help.

“I had a good run going at the time … and it was just so quick and the screams were so intense, that I knew it was obviously a terrible situation, so I just kind of kept running at it and I just kicked it sort of in the back hip area.”

An opponent ‘out of my weight class’

Fee doesn’t think his kick injured the wolf, but it was enough to startle it.

The animal let go of its would-be prey — the father, Matt Rispoli — but didn’t run away.

Fee started wondering if he had made a big mistake.

“I felt like I had kind of punched someone that was way out of my weight class,” he said.

“I immediately regretted kicking it, but as soon as it popped out of the tent, Matt came flying out. His whole half side was just covered in blood, but he was pretty amped up too, so we both just started screaming at it.”

Fee says the animal backed off a bit, but they had to throw rocks at it to keep it at bay.

Eventually, Fee and the American family fled to Fee’s campsite and joined his wife, taking shelter in their vehicle.

The view from inside the tent

Elisa Rispoli, Matt’s wife, posted the story from her point of view from inside the tent on Facebook.

She says her husband threw himself between the snarling wolf and his family.

“I laid my body on top of the kids and Matt pinned the wolf to the ground and held open its jaw with his hands, and the wolf started to drag Matt away, while I was pulling on his legs trying to get him back,” wrote Elisa.

“I cannot and don’t think I’ll ever be able to properly describe the terror.”

She wrote that Matt suffered puncture wounds and cuts on his arms and hands, but that he’s OK.

She said Fee was a “guardian angel.”

Parks Canada tracked the wolf believed to be responsible for the attack to a location about one kilometre south of the campground and killed it.

On Tuesday, the agency said DNA tests confirmed the wolf that was killed was responsible for the attack.

“Veterinary tests have confirmed that the wolf was in poor condition and likely nearing the end of its natural life span,” read Tuesday’s release.

“The wolf’s condition was likely a contributing factor for its unusual behaviour and this remains a very rare incident.”

Jon Stuart-Smith, a wildlife management specialist with Parks Canada, said this is the first incident of its kind within a national park.

“There have been two other incidents in provincial parks, one in B.C. and one in Ontario,” he said. “These three incidents are the only ones where people have actually been injured [in protected areas like provincial parks and national parks].”

Smith said there have been other incidents outside of parks where people have been injured in wolf attacks.

A sign indicates the temporary closure of the Rampart Creek Campground in Banff National Park after the wolf attack. (Russ Fee)

Previously, the federal agency said there were “no significant wildlife attractants or food found inside or in the immediate vicinity of the tent.”

Rampart Creek Campground, where the attack took place, has since reopened.

Only 18 red wolves left

From Defends.org

She never had a chance.

The man who shot and killed a mother red wolf knew he could slay her and no one could stop him. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) gave him the permit to shoot her!

At the time she was one of only 10 breeding female red wolves in the wild. It’s likely she was nursing pups the day she was shot. Pups who likely starved to death after their mother was gunned down.

Help save red wolves and other imperiled animals with your gift, and now through June 30th, your gift will be matched 2-for-1 up to a total of $100,000!

That killing was only one of the many outrages that have occurred on FWS’s watch. Red wolf recovery was once widely celebrated as a success story – but now the FWS is neglecting these wolves to the point that they’re about to go extinct.

Each time Defenders has taken the FWS to court to protect red wolves, the court has ruled in the wolves’ favor. And now the FWS is continuing to let red wolves die by not implementing a desperately needed recovery plan.

Don’t let the FWS get away with abandoning red wolves to extinction.

Enough is enough. Just last week, Defenders filed a formal notice of intent to sue the FWS and force them to protect red wolves. Your gift will help this fight by giving us the resources to go to court as many times as it takes, until red wolves are finally safe.

Once, red wolves roamed all over the southeastern U.S. Then they were all but exterminated as vermin. Today, there are as few as 18 red wolves clinging to survival in a remote area in eastern North Carolina.

In search of Japan’s extinct wolves: Sightings of a mysterious canine in Chichibu have been captivating animal enthusiasts

ENVIRONMENT

BY ALEX MARTIN

STAFF WRITER

It was around 3 p.m. on a chilly day in December. The sky was overcast and the scent of rain hung in the air when Rina Kambayashi happened upon a creature she had never seen before. Opening the front door to her family’s gracefully weathered 150-year-old traditional wooden house, Kambayashi stepped out into the garden. She froze when she noticed a lone, dog-like animal standing among the withered shrubs growing by the rim of a small, empty, man-made pond. The distance between them was around 3 to 4 meters, the 53-year-old homemaker recalls when we meet in April at her residence on the outskirts of Chichibu, a mountain-ringed city in Saitama Prefecture.

Kambayashi says the animal stared at her for a few seconds before she called inside for her aging mother, Chiyo, to bring a camera. Her voice prompted the mysterious canine to disappear into the bamboo forest bordering a valley leading to the Anya River, a tributary of the Arakawa, one of the longest rivers in Japan.

The animal had an elongated, triangular snout. Unlike dogs, which typically have prominent foreheads, its face seemed relatively flat from the top of the skull to the nose, she recalls. It had a straight tail and patchy, black-and-brown fur. Around the size of a medium-sized dog, it looked hungry, with its ribs showing.

“It definitely wasn’t a dog,” she says. “I think it was a wolf.”

A stuffed specimen of a Japanese wolf is stored at the University of Tokyo's Faculty of Agriculture. | COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO?S FACULTY OF AGRICULTURE
A stuffed specimen of a Japanese wolf is stored at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Agriculture. | COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO?S FACULTY OF AGRICULTURE

A wolf pelt in London

In early 1905, a 25-year-old American traveler named Malcolm Anderson was in Japan collecting exotic animal specimens for the London Zoological Society and the British Museum of Natural History under the patronage of an English zoologist, the Duke of Bedford. Anderson had checked into an inn called the Hogetsuro in Washikaguchi, a remote logging community in Nara Prefecture that is now part of the village of Higashiyoshino. With the assistance of Kiyoshi Kanai, who served as his interpreter, Anderson gathered carcasses of rabbits, weasels, deer and other animals.

On the morning of Jan. 23, three hunters who had learned of Anderson’s mission hauled in the stiff body of a wolf. After some arguments over the price of the dead beast, Anderson purchased the wolf and sent its pelt, along with other specimens, to London, where curators placed them in the British Museum of Natural History.

“It was inconceivable at the time that this would be the last wolf captured in Japan,” Kanai, who later served as mayor of Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, wrote in an article published in 1939. The animal Anderson bought for the price of ¥8 and 50 sen (the sen, a now-defunct currency unit, was worth one-hundredth of a yen) would be the last Japanese wolf the world would see.

Along with the Hokkaido wolf (also called the Ezo wolf; scientific name Canis lupus hattai), the Japanese wolf (or the Honshu wolf; Canis lupus hodophilax) is said to have become extinct over a century ago, gradually killed off as Japan marched toward industrialization in the late 19th century.

After having been worshipped for centuries as deities offering farmers protection against crop raiders such as wild boar and deer, these terrestrial carnivores were exterminated by what is believed to be a combination of rabies (transmitted from dogs) and humans using strychnine and bounty systems to poison and hunt them down in the name of protecting livestock and, by doing so, forever changing the nation’s ecological landscape.

Their story didn’t end there, however. From the early 20th century to Rina Kambayashi’s recent encounter, numerous accounts of sightings, reports of howling and discoveries of purported wolf droppings, bones and fur have prompted some to argue that the nihon ōkami (as the Japanese wolf is known in Japanese) — once the apex predator ruling the forests and mountains of the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu — is still alive and waiting to be rediscovered.

As the late Yoshinori Imaizumi, who was a zoologist at the National Science Museum in Tokyo and a renowned taxonomist, once wrote in his diary about the quest to find the Japanese wolf, “It’s over once you believe it’s gone.”

On Oct. 14, 1996, Hiroshi Yagi photographed a wolf-like animal in the mountains of Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture. The creature was later called the Chichibu yaken (wild dog). | COURTESY OF HIROSHI YAGI
On Oct. 14, 1996, Hiroshi Yagi photographed a wolf-like animal in the mountains of Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture. The creature was later called the Chichibu yaken (wild dog). | COURTESY OF HIROSHI YAGI

Close encounters?

On Oct. 14, 1996, Hiroshi Yagi took 19 photos of a medium-sized canine he had come across while driving on a lonely road deep in the mountains of Chichibu, an area traditionally considered the center of wolf-worship in the Kanto region.

It was early evening when Yagi, then 47, saw through his car’s front window a furry, short-legged animal with pointed ears and a black-tipped tail standing at the edge of the forestry road. The encounter was, in a sense, an unexpected bonus in Yagi’s decades-long efforts to track down and prove the existence of an animal now included on the Environment Ministry’s extinct species list.

On Oct. 14, 1996, Hiroshi Yagi photographed a wolf-like animal in the mountains of Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture. The creature was later called the Chichibu yaken (wild dog). | COURTESY OF HIROSHI YAGI
On Oct. 14, 1996, Hiroshi Yagi photographed a wolf-like animal in the mountains of Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture. The creature was later called the Chichibu yaken (wild dog). | COURTESY OF HIROSHI YAGI

Yagi’s photos quickly stirred a heated taxonomical debate. Yagi sent them to Imaizumi, then known as one of Japan’s foremost researchers of the Japanese wolf, who said the dog-like beast Yagi captured in his lens bore a strong resemblance to the Japanese wolf specimen acquired by Philipp Franz von Siebold, a German physician and botanist who first resided in Japan between 1823 and 1829. That specimen is now mounted and stored as part of his collection at the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden, the Netherlands. Imaizumi called the creature Yagi photographed a Chichibu yaken (wild dog).

On July 8, 2000, during a hiking trip in Oita Prefecture, Satoshi Nishida photographed a mostly gray-and-black medium-sized canine that had shades of orange on its legs and behind its ears. The high school principal also shared the images with Imaizumi, who said it resembled the Japanese wolf and called it Sobo yaken (in reference to Mount Sobo, where the photos were shot).

Nishida’s photos immediately drew skeptics. Naoki Tanaka, an honorary professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology who heads the Japan Wolf Association, an organization campaigning to reintroduce wolves into the nation to restore balance in the ecosystem, said that while the animal shared some traits of the Japanese wolf, it appeared more likely to be a German Shepherd or a German Shepherd hybrid. He argued it was unlikely that a lone wolf would be spotted since they were known to move in tightly knit packs.

For wolf enthusiasts such as Yagi and Nishida to prove the existence of the Japanese wolf, photographs were not enough. They needed harder evidence, ideally a live specimen that could be scientifically analyzed.

Legend has it that a white wolf once guided war hero Yamato Takeru back to safety when the warrior became lost in the Okuchichibu mountains. | ALEX MARTIN
Legend has it that a white wolf once guided war hero Yamato Takeru back to safety when the warrior became lost in the Okuchichibu mountains. | ALEX MARTIN

Camera traps

My mother, who owns a weekend house in a mountainous village in Arakawa, a district in Chichibu, is a close friend of Rina Kambayashi and her mother. Initially somewhat incredulous at Kambayashi’s tale of her encounter with a strange canine, she found it interesting enough to relay to me.

I contacted Yagi. After all, Chichibu is an area with numerous shrines dedicated to wolves and has been known for occasional sightings of wolf-like animals. If there is one place in Japan where the legendary creature both feared and revered as Oguchi no Magami (Large-Mouthed Pure God) could emerge from the mist of extinction, it might as well be Chichibu.

Yagi, who will turn 70 this year, originally hails from Niigata Prefecture and lives in Ageo, a suburb in Saitama. Holder of a black belt in karate, he is sturdily built and comes across as friendly, talkative and youthful for his age, although his demeanor takes on an air of intensity when the conversation turns to the creatures that are his life-long passion.

“I belonged to the mountaineering club in high school and, after graduating, began working at a mountain hut on Mount Naeba,” he says, referring to a 2,145-meter volcano on the border of Nagano and Niigata prefectures.

One night, when he was 19, he heard a howling cry pierce the air of the beechwood forest. He was convinced it was no regular dog. “I knew then that it came from an animal that shouldn’t exist,” he says.

The incident would propel Yagi to embark on his mission. Half a century later, his quest continues.

A view over the mountains of Chichibu from Mitsumine Shrine. The Okuchichibu mountain range has been an abundant source of legends and folklore involving Japanese wolves. Sightings of the animal continue to this day, leading some to believe the extinct canine could still be roaming the forests of Japan. | ALEX MARTIN
A view over the mountains of Chichibu from Mitsumine Shrine. The Okuchichibu mountain range has been an abundant source of legends and folklore involving Japanese wolves. Sightings of the animal continue to this day, leading some to believe the extinct canine could still be roaming the forests of Japan. | ALEX MARTIN

Yagi and members of his nonprofit organization have set up roughly 70 motion-sensitive infrared cameras in the Okuchichibu Mountains — a vast mountain range covering several prefectures in the Kanto and Koshinetsu regions — in a bid to capture images of the Japanese wolf. Once a week, he would hike up mountain trails to replace SD memory cards for later review and change the batteries of cameras that were running low on juice. It’s no easy task for a man his age, but Yagi’s dedication and commitment — perhaps bordering on obsession — are unwavering.

In “Kenroki,” a 2012 NHK documentary focusing on the ongoing search and wolf mythology, Yagi tells the film crew that upon his death he wants his remains to be buried in a shallow pit in the mountains so that hungry wolves can devour them.

After exchanging several emails, Yagi and I decided to visit Kambayashi at her home. On April 11, Yagi picked me up in his van at Seibu Chichibu Station, some 75 minutes by express train from Tokyo, and we drove southwest on route 140 to listen to what he said was the most recent account of a purported wolf sighting he had heard of.

Lost wolves

The debate over what exactly the Japanese wolf is has been complicated by the fact that the zoological status of the animal has only been determined recently, Brett L. Walker writes in his book, “The Lost Wolves of Japan.”

“Prior to the early 20th century, the categories of canine remained diverse and dependent on social situations and ecological contexts,” Walker writes. “Wolves (ōkami), sick wolves (byōro), mountain dogs (yamainu), honorable dogs (o-inu) big dogs (ōinu), wild dogs (yaken), bad dogs (akuken), village dogs (sato inu), domesticated dogs (kai inu) and hunting dogs (kari inu) all loped across the boundaries of status and of occupational, religious and regional understandings of the categories of canines.”

It was only in the early 20th century, after debates spawned by Carolus Linnaeus’ introduction of his taxonomical system of classifying living organisms hierarchically, and after changes brought by the Meiji Restoration, that the stable category of the Japanese wolf emerged, Walker writes.

A stuffed specimen of a Japanese wolf is stored at the University of Tokyo's Faculty of Agriculture. | COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO?S FACULTY OF AGRICULTURE
A stuffed specimen of a Japanese wolf is stored at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Agriculture. | COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO?S FACULTY OF AGRICULTURE

Still, specimens remain scarce. Besides Siebold’s mounted wolf, there are only three other stuffed specimens remaining in the world: one at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, another stored at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Agriculture and one more at the Wakayama Prefectural Museum of Natural History.

There also appear to have been instances in the past when dogs and wolves were encouraged to crossbreed to enhance hunting instincts.

“While the Japanese wolf and Japanese dog breeds trace back to different roots, they have most likely crossbred at some point in time, although we have yet to determine what percentage of their populations were hybrid,” says Takefumi Kikusui, a professor at Azabu University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Takefumi Kikusui, a professor at Azabu University's School of Veterinary Medicine | ALEX MARTIN
Takefumi Kikusui, a professor at Azabu University’s School of Veterinary Medicine | ALEX MARTIN

Interestingly, Kikusui also says that Japanese dog breeds such as the Shiba and Akita are considered among the closest genetic relatives to wolves, and still exhibit wolf-like behavior, especially during hunting expeditions. Such traits may have led to some of the murkiness when it came to distinguishing wolves from dogs in pre-modern Japan.

Siebold’s Japanese wolf — considered a type specimen, or a specimen originally used to name a species or subspecies — has itself been a source of confusion. The doctor bought two canine specimens in Osaka in 1826, labeling one “okame,” or wolf, and the other “jamainu,” or mountain dog. Only one appears to have made it to Leiden intact, however, and the distinctions were blurred, with the jamainu specimen listed as the Japanese wolf.

Furthermore, the term yamainu is open to interpretation and has no concrete etymology, Kikusui says. Depending on where in Japan the term is used, it could be another name for wolf or a wolf subspecies, or it could simply refer to feral dogs.

A stone statue of a wolf sits in Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN
A stone statue of a wolf sits in Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN

Genetic evolution

Modern technology is helping to shed some light on the mystery.

Naotaka Ishiguro, a researcher at The Graduate University for Advanced Studies, has been using mitochondrial DNA testing and comparisons with other bone samples of the Japanese wolf to try to determine whether Siebold’s specimens belonged to the extinct animal.

Ishiguro has also analyzed the mitochondrial genome sequences of ancient specimens to determine the origins of the Japanese wolf, which he believes once numbered in the several thousands.

According to his research, the Japanese wolf appears to have colonized Japan in the late Pleistocene Era (25,000 to 125,000 years ago) via what is now the Korean Peninsula when the Japanese archipelago was still connected to the Asian continent. In contrast, the Hokkaido wolf was likely introduced much more recently — around 14,000 years ago — via a land bridge with Sakhalin Island.

Larger than the Japanese wolf, the Hokkaido wolf is considered a subspecies of the gray wolf. The Japanese wolf, however, is sometimes treated as an independent species due to its smaller body size compared with the continental gray wolf and some distinguishing skeletal characteristics.

To clear some of the mystery, Jonas Niemann, a Ph.D. student at the University of Copenhagen, with colleagues analyzed the genome of a Japanese wolf skin from the Natural History Museum in London, at the behest of paleogeneticist Mikkel Sinding, who specializes in the evolution of wolves and dogs. Early results pointed to an intriguing possibility.

“Our preliminary data suggests that the genome of the Honshu wolf is similar to the hypercarnivorous Pleistocene wolf, which went extinct at some point around the late Pleistocene (Era),” Niemann says.

Most ancient wolves went extinct when the ice sheets that covered the Northern Hemisphere began to melt more than 20,000 years ago, killing off large mammals such as the mammoth, which wolves hunted. A story Science magazine published last year on the ongoing research by Niemann and his colleagues cited Sinding saying that some of these extinct wolves’ DNA lived on in the Japanese wolf, potentially offering a new window on the evolution of wolves and dogs.

Stone statue of wolves guard the entrance to Wakamiko Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN
Stone statue of wolves guard the entrance to Wakamiko Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN

Mountain guides

Tracing the genetic evolution of the Japanese wolf, however, is an entirely different matter from rediscovering an extinct species.

Kikusui of Azabu University, for one, is doubtful of their continued existence.

“Wolf packs typically consist of around five to 10 wolves led by an alpha male and female. To prevent incest and for them to survive, there will need to be a minimum of 50 to 100 wolves,” he says. “And if there were that many wolves around, there would be many more sightings.”

Journalist Mitsuru Munakata | COURTESY OF MITSURU MUNAKATA
Journalist Mitsuru Munakata | COURTESY OF MITSURU MUNAKATA

Journalist Mitsuru Munakata, who wrote a book titled “Nihon Okami wa Kietaka?” (“Has the Japanese Wolf Disappeared?”), isn’t as sure. During his research, he himself came across what he thought may be a wolf while driving back from Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu.

Munakata says he became interested in Japan’s lost wolves after reading Mieko Ogura’s nonfiction book, “Okami no Gofu” (“The Wolf Talisman”), which explores the history and folklore behind the ofudatalismans with wolf imprints, distributed by some shrines and still found in many homes in the Kanto region and beyond, which promise protection against fire, theft and other evils.

Mitsumine Shrine’s talismans, for example, feature a pair of wolves facing each other, one with its mouth open (symbolizing “a,” or the sound of an open mouth) and the other with its mouth closed (symbolizing un, or the sound of a closed mouth). Together, “a-un” is a Buddhist mantra representing the beginning and the end of all things.

Situated around 1,100 meters up the northwestern slope of Mount Myohogatake in Okuchichibu, the shrine is dedicated to the founding gods of Japan, Izanami and Izanagi, and has been home to wolf-worship and shugendo, an old ascetic religion combining aspects of mountain worship with Shintoism and esoteric Buddhism.

According to “A Brief Guide To Chichibu” by Geoffrey Tudor, legend has it that Yamato Takeru, a warrior hero from the province of Yamato, founded the mountaintop shrine.

On his way north on a mission to subdue troublesome tribes of non-Yamato affiliation, he became lost in a mist in what is now Okuchichibu. A large white wolf appeared from the mist, legend has it, and guided the warrior to the trail and safety.

“To this day, the mountains of Okuchichibu are still often swathed in mist, but there are no longer wild dogs or wolves to help lost travelers,” Tudor writes. “However, their presence remains, in stone. Many local shrines have dog/wolf statues as guardian symbols, (a custom) that is unique to this remote district.”

At a museum adjacent to the shrine, enlarged photographs of Yagi’s Chichibu yaken and Nishida’s Sobo yaken are displayed alongside the pelt of the Japanese wolf discovered in 1996. Yagi is, in fact, a visiting researcher at the museum. It was on the way back from a forum on Japanese wolves Yagi hosted there that Munakata spotted a wolf-like creature.

A stone statue of a wolf guards the entrance to Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN
A stone statue of a wolf guards the entrance to Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, Saitaima Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN

At around 6 p.m. on Nov. 14, 2014, Munakata and a friend were driving the narrow, winding road from Mitsumine Shrine toward Futase Dam when the vehicle’s headlight caught a gray animal sprinting across the road.

It stopped momentarily before disappearing behind the bushes. Around the size of a Shiba, it had pointed ears and a straight tail, characteristics of a Japanese wolf. The encounter was enough to convince Munakata that the supposedly extinct animal might still be roaming the mountains of Chichibu.

“Wolves used to be found most everywhere in Japan. We assume they no longer exist but shifting that mind-set and actually trying to find traces of them could expand possibilities,” he says.

Munakata drew on the example of the Japanese river otter, last seen in 1979 and officially declared extinct by the Environment Ministry in 2012. Despite its official status, Munakata says there are still numerous otter sightings on the island of Shikoku.

And in 2010, a team of researchers at Kyoto University along with celebrity biologist “Sakana-kun” rediscovered living members of kunimasu, a Japanese species of salmon thought to have gone extinct in 1940, prompting the Environment Ministry to change its designation from “extinct” to “extinct in the wild.”

“It’s a matter of whether you actively search for them or not,” he says.

Rina Kambayashi, 53, speaks to Hiroshi Yagi in April about an encounter with a wolf-like animal at her home in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, in December last year. | ALEX MARTIN
Rina Kambayashi, 53, speaks to Hiroshi Yagi in April about an encounter with a wolf-like animal at her home in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, in December last year. | ALEX MARTIN

‘Connecting the dots’

At the Kambayashi residence, Yagi becomes visibly excited as we listen to her recall her canine encounter.

Standing by the shrubs where Kambayashi said the animal stood, Yagi takes out a tape measure and calculates its size according to her memory. Around 50 centimeters tall — somewhat small for a Japanese wolf, he says, but well within the margin of error.

Kambayashi’s description of the animal’s physique and other traits appear to resemble stuffed specimens of the Japanese wolf as well as photos of the Sobo yaken shot by Nishida in 2000.

Adding an air of authenticity to her claims, Kambayashi’s next-door neighbor had also witnessed a mysterious creature near her home in March and reported the incident to the local town office.

Hiroshi Yagi examines a location where the mysterious canine was spotted. | ALEX MARTIN
Hiroshi Yagi examines a location where the mysterious canine was spotted. | ALEX MARTIN

And while wolves are known to stay away from human communities, Yagi has his own reason to believe Kambayashi’s story: The Anya River running by her home had been a source of wolf sightings, and Yagi had traced the river upstream two decades earlier as part of his fieldwork.

“It’s like connecting the dots,” he says.

When the conversation turns to the howling that Yagi had heard 50 years earlier on Mount Naeba, Kambayashi nonchalantly cuts in.

“That reminds me. I hear howls quite frequently in the middle of the night from the direction of the stream just over yonder,” she says. To Yagi’s surprise, Kambayashi says this happens once or twice a month.

While some dogs are known to howl, Yagi says modern audio recognition technology can differentiate dog howls from wolf howls.

If the howls can be recorded, he says, it could potentially be used as evidence to prove the existence of wolves.

Before we leave, Yagi asks Kambayashi’s permission to install two infrared cameras focusing on animal trails leading up to her house, which he did the following week.

“Academics tend to reject these possibilities outright,” Yagi says. “I start by affirming. Of course, we can’t be sure of what she saw just yet. But so far, I haven’t heard anything she said that denies the existence of the Japanese wolf.”