By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

The Washington Post

In Montana, it’s legal to shoot wolves that get perilously close to people or livestock, and that’s what a rancher in Denton thought he did, putting a bullet into something with four legs and canine teeth that came within stalking distance of his herd.

But when he summoned wildlife officials to investigate, something was off.

The dead animal’s canine teeth were too short, the front paws were tiny for a wolf, and the claws on those paws were too long. The ears were too big, as well, experts told The Washington Post, and the coat was wrong. This was no wolf.

It was a young, non-lactating female and a canid, or member of the dog family, Montana wildlife officials concluded, but that’s about as far as animal experts got.

“We have no idea what this is,” Bruce Auchly, information manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “And we won’t know until we get the DNA tests back.”

But from that vacuum of information has sprung not-quite-educated guesses from armchair taxonomists and conspiracy theorists.

Their leading theories about the mystery creature:

• It’s Bigfoot: Because it’s large, hairy and unexplained.

• It’s a dogman: Think bigfoot with a snout. Or, as a website dedicated to dogman encounters defines them: “cryptozoological beings that are large and sometimes described as looking like upright canids.”

“They’re spotted each day, and the government quells any and all reports,” one person on social media said, according to the Great Falls Tribune.

Some dogmen look like a stretched out dog that walks on two feet. Others look like a Sasquatch with a Doberman’s face.

There has been only one reported dogman sighting in Montana, according to the dogman encounters website, which includes a handy map.

“I sat up in my bed, frightened, but I didn’t feel the need to yell for my parents or anything,” the anonymous Montana poster said. “It just kind of stared at me. While looking at it, I saw that it had pointed ears, with tufts of fur, like lynx have, and a muzzle like a German Shepard.”

• It’s a dire wolf: The creature got too close to livestock, not Prince Joffrey of the “Game of Thrones” fame, and although Winterfell is actually a real place you can visit, it’s nowhere near Denton, Montana.

Dire wolves were native to the Americas and larger than their cousins, the gray wolf. But they went extinct more than 10,000 years ago, The Washington Post’s Karin Brulliard reported.

Thousands of dire wolf skeletons have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits, according to the BBC.

Auchly, with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, doesn’t put much stock in that theory.

“First off, ‘Dire Wolf’ was a wonderful song by The Grateful Dead in about 1971. I know I listened to it a lot,” he said. “In reality, a dire wolf is a prehistoric mammal from the age of saber-toothed tigers.”

But it could be a dire wolf 2.0. A breeder in southern Oregon has spent the last three decades trying to create a new sort of dog called the American Alsatian that would look very much like the extinct species and the animals given to the children of House Stark.

• It’s a wolf-dog hybrid: Wolves and dogs are interfertile, according to the International Wolf Center, meaning they can interbreed and produce offspring that can then produce more offspring.

“We’ve had a few instances of wolf/dog hybrids out there,” Ty Smucker, wolf management specialist for Montana FWP, said. “One was out somewhere in eastern central Montana killing sheep like crazy. Finally, we caught it, and it turned out to be a hybrid.”