Gray wolf shot by Michigan hunter in rare Lower Peninsula sighting for species

It wasn't a coyote a Michigan hunter shot earlier in Calhoun County in January - though, they could be forgiven for the mistake. 

After all, gray wolves haven't been seen this far south in Michigan in more than a hundred years. 

But genetic testing by the Department of Natural Resources confirmed the hunter's harvest was the apex predator, the office announced in a release Wednesday. There have been only a few signs of wolves in Michigan's Lower Peninsula since they were reestablished in the state in the 1980s.

However, the existing populations are almost exclusive to the Upper Peninsula. 

The matter remains a source of investigation for the DNR. However, the department does not believe the species has established itself in the lower portion of the state.

"This is an unusual case, and the DNR is actively delving into the matter to learn more about this particular animal's origin," said Brian Roell, large carnivore specialist for the DNR in a release.

In an interview with FOX 2, Roell doubled down on the rarity of the event, saying he doesn't expect to see another wolf this far south in Michigan ever again. 

"You have much better luck of getting struck by lightning than seeing one in Calhoun County again," he said.

One reason wolf populations likely won't ever reestablish in the Lower Peninsula is the number of people that live in the region; there's too many, Roell said. Another reason is the changing landscape has made the habitat not suitable to support gray wolves.

That doesn't mean there aren't wolves that live in the southern region - there have been examples of wolves traveling vast distances and being reported in the Lower Peninsula. The most recent sighting was in 2014 when biologists working with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians spotted a wolf on a trail camera.

There were other sightings in October 2004 in Presque Isle County and in track surveys in 2011 and 2015.

At least one of those wolves was collared and came from the Upper Peninsula. It's possible the latest wolf also came from there.

"We got some samples and did confirm from two different labs that it is a Great Lakes wolf," he said. "As for the exact origin, we're not sure, but it likely came from Michigan or Wisconsin or Ontario. The likely source is Michigan."

In the most recent case, a hunter who was accompanied by a guide for coyote hunting during the legal season believed they had spotted a large coyote. Normally, the scavengers are between 25 and 40 pounds. 

This particular kill weighed 84 pounds. Calhoun County is west of Jackson and includes the city of Battle Creek. 

The DNR first started hearing about the harvest in January when rumors were floating around on social media. Roell then spoke to a local biologist who started looking - eventually locating the animal. When he looked at pictures of the animal, "I said ‘that looks an awful lot like a wolf.’"

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A series of genetic tests on the animal later confirmed it to be a gray wolf. They were extirpated from the state in the early 20th century. The species is currently protected by federal law due to its endangered status. 

They can only be killed if they are a direct or immediate threat to human life. Livestock owners can be compensated for their losses, but they cannot hunt them.

More testing is expected on the wolf to determine the age, sex, and overall health of the animal.