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Wolf, dog or what? Ashland lab investigates

A mystery that has the world guessing will likely be solved in Ashland.

Armchair biologists on social media and genuine wolf experts are puzzled by a mysterious wolf-like animal that’s made international headlines in the weeks since a central Montana rancher shot it.

On Twitter, some are using labels such as “dire wolf,” “chimera” and “Dogman” to describe the animal seen in photos posted by the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department. But even the scientifically minded can’t say with certainty whether it’s a wolf, dog, hybrid or bear.

The question “what is it?” doesn’t have a definitive answer yet, but it will, says Ken Goddard, who heads the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, the only crime lab in the world focused on wildlife law enforcement.

“My expectation is our DNA tests will answer the questions,” Goddard said. “I’ll be very surprised if they don’t.”

Goddard said he was among the last to know his laboratory would be involved in the investigation, only hearing from a federal agent in Billings, Montana, at the beginning of the week, after scientists extracted tissue samples in a Bozeman lab to be sent to the Ashland lab.

Beyond acknowledging that evidence technician Lucia Ortiz-Martell received tissue samples sent from Billings this week, Goddard can’t comment on the open investigation.

He can, however, explain how the lab will find its answer: using DNA samples of known wolf, coyote, fox and other species and running them through a Hitachi genetic analyzer that will compare the strands at 256 points.

“It’s not exciting, but to me it’s magic,” Goddard said.

It’s also nearly obsolete. The future in DNA testing is genomics, according to Goddard, in which the lab would test sequencers that look at the entire strand of DNA, all 3 billion “plus or minus 500,000” points. For forensic wildlife scientists’ purposes, the new equipment is still in its experimental stage.

What’s known about the animal so far is that a rancher shot the animal originally identified as a wolf May 16 near Denton, Montana, a town of 255. Within a week, Montana officials adjusted their label of the non-lactating female to that of a “canid,” a member of the dog family that includes dogs, foxes, coyotes and wolves.

“The animal originally was reported as a wolf, but several Fish, Wildlife & Parks wolf specialists looked at photos of the animal and collectively doubted it was a purebred wolf: the canine teeth were too short, the front paws too small and the claws on the front paw were too long,” a release issued by Montana FWP said.

“Nevertheless, social media was quick to pronounce the animal as everything from a wolf to a wolf hybrid to something mythical.”

Goddard said he’s been surprised by the intrigue surrounding the animal, which has garnered headlines as far away as the BBC and German media, along with virtually every major American news agency. For investigators in Ashland, it’s a regular part of their work.

“We do that guessing all the time,” Goddard said.

If Goddard has an idea of what the animal is, he’s not saying. It’s a forensic investigators’ job to keep an open mind and let the evidence speak for itself, he said, although he visibly chafed at more outlandish guesses of the werewolf variety.

The staff of 29, of which roughly half are scientists, investigates some 800 cases a year, ranging from poaching cases across the country to enforcing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the international treaty that bars products from being made from protected animals, woods and other wildlife.

For example, in 2014, an investigation in Ashland led to the forfeiture of $52 million worth of endangered rosewood which had been clearcut in Madagascar and seized at a port in Sri Lanka, according to lab Deputy Director Ed Espinoza.

Where the curious animal fits on the forensic investigators’ priority list isn’t clear, though Goddard indicated it’s not at the bottom.

“It’s pretty obvious there’s a public need to know,” Goddard said. “We’re as curious as anybody.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

A genetic analyzer will be used to identify a wolf-like creature that was killed last month Montana.Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
Ken Goddard, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, showcases morphological specimens at the lab Friday. The lab will attempt to identify a mysterious wolf-like animal that recently made national headlines.Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune