When more than a dozen lambs and sheep were slaughtered on a Shelburne, Massachusetts, farm last fall, wildlife officials suspected either a wolf that had escaped from captivity or a rogue mutt on a hungry rampage.
When the culprit animal was killed and examined, they found themselves with a bigger mystery: How did a wild eastern gray wolf, a rare species that has not been found in the state in more than a century, find its way to western Massachusetts?
(Related Story: N. Rockies Gray Wolf Removed From U.S. Endangered List [February 21, 2008])
Thomas J. Healy, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Northeast regional office, said recent DNA tests at the agency's Oregon labs confirmed it is the first gray wolf found in New England since a 1993 case in upstate Maine.
The discovery of the 85-pound (40-kilogram) male wolf may help solidify experts' theories that the endangered species has been migrating south from Canada and repopulating rural parts of New England.
This wolf, though, was found farther south than any other reported spottings, and nothing indicates it had escaped or been set free by someone keeping it as a pet, authorities said.
"This posed more questions than it answered," Healy said. "The only thing we were able to answer was that it was an eastern gray wolf. The history of where it came from and how it got here, we may never know."
According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the wild gray wolf was considered extinct in Massachusetts by about 1840. One was recorded in Berkshire County in 1918, but was believed to have escaped from domestic captivity.
New England's large stretches of interconnected woods, mountainous regions, and rural farmland offer good north-south corridors for wolves on the move.
Shelburne, about 8 miles (12 kilometers) west of Greenfield in Franklin County, is one such area. It is surrounded by miles of state forests, ski areas, and open acreage. (See map.)