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Wolf or coyote? Wildlife mystery in Nevada solved with DNA testing

Wolf pups rehomed in New Mexico
Cameras show rehoming of wolf pups in New Mexico for first time 04:20

Three wolves roaming the mountains in northeastern Nevada would have been notable for a state without an established wolf population. But one recent sighting of a wolf-like animal trio in that area turned out to be a false alarm, after an investigation and a round of genetic tests revealed that the creatures are almost surely coyotes, the Nevada Department of Wildlife said.

Coyotes are common throughout Nevada, including in some of its major cities. Wolves are not, and they are rarely seen in the state despite populating surrounding regions in Idaho, Oregon and Northern California. Nevada wildlife officials told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2017 that a lone wolf was confirmed to have been spotted within state lines — the first in almost a century.

So, when a government-contracted helicopter crew flying over the rural ranching area Merritt Mountain in March saw three animals that looked like wolves, their potential discovery spawned a full-fledged probe. The wildlife department said its own biologists conducted further helicopter searches and surveys on the ground to collect hair, fecal and urine samples believed to belong to the mysterious creatures. The samples underwent DNA analyses at two independent laboratories and results showed with 99.9% certainty that they came from coyotes, officials said. 

"While initial observations indicated the possibility of wolves in the area, the DNA results of the samples collected indicated that these animals were, in fact, coyotes," said Alan Jenne, the director of the department, in a statement. "We appreciate the diligence of our biologists, assisting laboratory personnel and the public's cooperation throughout this process and we will continue to monitor the area for any indication of wolf presence." 

"We understand the significance of such sightings and the importance of accurate identification," Jenne's statement continued. "NDOW will continue to work closely with state and federal agencies to uphold our mission of protecting Nevada's ecosystems and wildlife while also maintaining transparency as a top priority in all our communications with the public." 

Hunters have certainly confused wolves and coyotes before. In January, a hunter in southwestern Michigan harvested what he thought was a large coyote. The hunter learned through subsequent DNA testing that the animal was actually a gray wolf, which are normally found exclusively in the state's Upper Peninsula, CBS Detroit reported, citing the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Earlier, in the fall of 2022, New York environmental officials confirmed that an animal caught during a coyote hunt upstate the previous year was, in fact, a wolf

And, in 2018, an enormous creature seemingly belonging to an unrecognizable wolf-like species in Montana was determined after undergoing tests to be a gray wolf, too. Prior to testing, the wolf with apparently unusual features had gone so far as to spark "Bigfoot" rumors online. How to identify the animal's species had even stumped wildlife experts in the area, with a representative from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks telling The Great Falls Tribune at the time that "we have no idea what this was until we get a DNA report back."

—Caitlin O'Kane contributed reporting.

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