Mysterious Wolflike Creature Shot and Killed in Montana Puzzles Experts

The creature was shot and killed near Denton, Montana. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

On May 16, a rancher near Denton, Montana, shot and killed what appeared to be a large wolf that was lurking near his livestock.

As required by law, he reported the kill to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP). But after examining pictures of the specimen, specialists were left puzzled, concluding it was probably not a purebred wolf, local news outlet KRTV reported.

While it was clear the creature was a female canid (a mammal of the dog family, which also includes foxes, coyotes and wolves) and shared many characteristics of a wolf, such as long, grayish fur, a large head and an elongated snout, officials noted some unusual features.

"Several things grabbed my attention when I saw the pictures," Ty Smucker, a wolf management specialist at MFWP, told the Great Falls Tribune. "The ears are too big. The legs look a little short. The feet look a little small and the coat looks weird. There's just something off about it."

The carcass was sent to the MFWP's lab, where tissue samples will be taken from the animal. They will be transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, where DNA samples will be compared to those of known species.

"We have no idea what this was until we get a DNA report back," Bruce Auchly, an MFWP spokesman, told the Tribune. It could take weeks or even months.

Smucker said it could be a wolf-dog hybrid, several of which have been spotted in the region in recent years. Wolves and dogs can interbreed and produce viable offspring, something that nearly always happens in captivity though it can happen in the wild, albeit rarely. People who breed wolf-dogs for pets often find they are too challenging to care for.

"Every year, thousands of pet wolves or hybrids are abandoned, rescued or euthanized because people purchase an animal they were not prepared to care for," according to the International Wolf Center.

"Laws vary from area to area. In some states, hybrids are classified as wild animals and owners are required to possess the same type of permits and caging as for a wolf. In other states, hybrids are regulated as dogs, needing only proper vaccinations and licenses."