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Return of the Wolf?

By Kirk D. Johnson
Photos by Harold Umber

Gray Wolf
For now, the only resident gray wolves in North Dakota are at the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck and Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot. More frequent sightings of transient animals, could mean a greater likelihood of established populations sometime in the future.

Originally published in:
North Dakota Outdoors
(March 1999)

Official Publication of the
State Game and Fish Department
100 North Bismarck Expressway
Bismarck, North Dakota 58501-5095


This resource is based on the following source:
Johnson, Kirk D.  1999.  Return of the wolf?.  North Dakota Outdoors 61(8):
     14-16.
This resource should be cited as:
Johnson, Kirk D.  1999.  Return of the wolf?.  North Dakota Outdoors 61(8):
     14-16.  Jamestown, ND:  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.  
     http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/wolfrtrn/index.htm
     (Version 05MAY99).

On a crisp fall morning on the opening day of deer season in 1992, a hunter scouted some wooded ravines in Dunn County. Suddenly his horse bolted wildly, as out of the corner of his eye the hunter saw a black wolf charging from the cover of nearby woods. As the horse began to gallop, the wolf caught up, causing the horse to stumble and fall, throwing the rider off. During the confusion, the hunter alertly grabbed his rifle, and while on the ground, he shot the wolf.

According to federal Wildlife Services (formerly Animal Damage Control) agent Lou Huffman, the wolf carcass still weighed 109 pounds nine days later; he estimated its live weight could have been 120 pounds or more. It is likely the wolf was pursuing the horse, not the rider.

The wolf was likely not an escaped pet or captive, because it had no tags or markings on its body, Huffman indicated. The wolf has been displayed at Watford City High School.

Dave Kraft, former enforcement agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck, stated the wolf was likely a "dispersing juvenile" from Canada or Montana. Young wolves 1-2 years old typically disperse 50-100 miles from the pack into which they were born, but have been known to disperse up to 550 miles, according to statistics from the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. A black color phase is common in wolves from Canada or Montana, Kraft said.

North Dakota has had seven confirmed wolf mortalities since 1958, according to Steve Allen, furbearer biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. The last reported death was the Dunn County wolf in 1992. U.S. Fish and Wildlife analysis of skull characteristics of five of these wolves suggested they were young animals migrating from Minnesota's expanding population, currently estimated at 2,000-2,200 animals. Such adolescents may enter North Dakota through a Sheyenne Grasslands "corridor"from Minnesota, Huffman suggested. The Sheyenne National Grasslands are a hundred square mile sandy tallgrass prairie that was formerly a delta region of the Sheyenne River where it drained into ancient Lake Agassiz, now the Red River Valley.

Wolves may also enter the state from southern Manitoba. Up to 75 wolves reside in Riding Mountain National Park, 90 miles from the Turtle Mountains. The Spruce Woods Reserve of Manitoba lies only 40 miles from the North Dakota border and has around 10 wolves.

Until recently wildlife professionals did not feel that any wolves were breeding in North Dakota. In the August 12, 1994 issue of Minot Daily News, however, it was reported that Wildlife Services officers discovered a wolf den with tracks of an adult wolf and pups in the Turtle Mountains. These were likely the first wolf pups born in North Dakota since the 1930s, stated Mark Dryer, a former endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck. Reports since then indicate the Turtle Mountains wolf family disappeared for unknown reasons.

Manitoba wolves may also be moving into the Pembina River Gorge and escarpment region of northeastern North Dakota, where sightings have been reported. The gorge is a heavily forested region approximately 15 miles long, west of the town of Walhalla, that covers 12,500 acres and stretches across the border into Manitoba.

Other areas of the state may also harbor new wolf families. Turner Harris and Drew Gartner, two young boys from Killdeer, reported a small wolf pack of 45 individuals residing within the Killdeer Mountains, a few miles northwest of town. The boys also indicated mountain lions are occasionally sighted in the area. While these reports are not officially verified, the Killdeer Mountains lie within Dunn County, site of the black wolf death in 1992.

The Killdeer Mountains, as well as the nearby Little Missouri badlands, offer hundreds of square miles of rugged terrain and abundant prey species such as mule deer, elk and white-tailed deer. It does not take a great leap of imagination to envision wolves reentering this region; the last known grizzly bear in the state was shot in the thickly wooded hills and ravines of the Killdeer Mountains in 1907. Theodore Roosevelt also camped and hunted game, including mountain lions, in this region in the 1880s.

Wolves reentering North Dakota may be staking claim to land once roamed by their ancestors. Scientists now believe the wolves that inhabit Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are descendants of the Great Plains wolf that once inhabited North Dakota, according to information published on the International Wolf Center's World Wide Web home page (www.wolf.org). Previously, Minnesota wolves were commonly called timber wolves, another subspecies that lived in the eastern U.S. and still inhabits south eastern Canada.

Since most of North Dakota is privately owned (with the exception of the badlands, much of which is public land), the return of wolves to isolated regions of the state like the Killdeer and Turtle mountains may be controversial. The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is listed as a threatened species in Minnesota, and endangered elsewhere in the lower 48. Alaska's population of several thousand wolves is not considered endangered.

The range of northern Minnesota's wolves includes both national forests and some private farmland. As the wolf population has expanded under provisions of the Endangered Species Act, some of northern Minnesota's farmlands have been "colonized" by wolf packs. Of the scores of farms that lie within wolf territories, however, only 1-2 percent have confirmed reports of wolf attacks on live stock or pets each year.

Since northern Minnesota's wolf population has made such a strong recovery, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in June 1998 proposed "delisting" wolves in the Great Lakes region from federal protection. This would allow Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin to develop their own wolf management plans. Michigan has already developed a state plan, while Wisconsin has drafted a management strategy for its estimated 100 wolves. Minnesota has also drafted a state management proposal, with legislative action anticipated in early 1999.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service planned to publish an official wolf management proposal by the end of 1998. Under this plan, Rocky Mountain wolf populations that naturally recolonized Idaho and Montana would be reclassified as "threatened" rather than endangered, while reintroduced "Mexican" wolves in the Southwest and red wolves in the Southeast would remain endangered. Special management rules would continue to allow elimination of reintroduced Yellowstone and Idaho wolves that prey on livestock.

How this would affect nomadic wolves entering the Dakotas from Canada, Minnesota and Montana remains to be seen. North Dakota and South Dakota may have the opportunity to develop state management plans for wolves roaming certain wooded "island-like" areas such as the Pembina Gorge, Killdeer and Turtle mountains, or prairie areas such as the badlands and Sheyenne National Grasslands.

The lack of documented attacks in Minnesota may be due to relative wolf scarcity in farmland areas where less than 50 percent of the land is forest. Wolves have trouble surviving in areas where road densities exceed about .35 miles per square mile, according to David Mech, a wildlife biologist who studied the wolf population in Minnesota for many years. Wolves in Minnesota have not established territories in areas where crop and pastureland exceeds 27 percent of the total land area, or where forest cover is less than 60 percent, Mech indicated. This may be related to a higher density of roads in more settled farmland areas.

If road densities are one of the primary criterion that determines whether wolves can settle into an area, counties in western North and South Dakota generally have fewer roads per square mile than northern Minnesota wolf country, where road densities average between .30 and .40 of a mile per square mile.

In 1986, a female wolf was killed in Harding County, in northwestern South Dakota. Local residents claimed to have seen the wolf for months before its death, evidence that it may have established a territory. Road densities in Harding County average only .10 of a mile per square mile, much less than in Minnesota. In Dunn County, North Dakota, home of the Killdeer Mountains, road densities average only .14 of a mile per square mile. The western counties of both states have a human population that averages less than one person per square mile.

Since it appears high road densities would not be a problem in western North and South Dakota, wolves could, theoretically, establish a resident population. However, acceptance of such a population by farmers and ranchers who could be affected is a crucial issue.

Rangeland covers nearly 75 percent of Dunn County, for example, and thousands of cattle graze on public and private lands, there. Since wolves once hunted buffalo on the plains, attacking cattle or sheep may prove inevitable. Finding a solution to this potential problem would prove difficult, since wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

One future option might be to list the wolf in North Dakota as a game animal. Since the wolf is a valuable furbearer, listing this canine as a game animal with specific hunting and trapping seasons in North Dakota would be possible if a resident breeding population developed on certain public forests and grasslands in the state. If nomadic wolves in Dunn County, for example, eventually established residence and formed a few packs, a limited wolf hunting and trapping season could be established. Such a program should include provisions to immediately destroy wolves known to have attacked or killed livestock or pets. In Minnesota, wolves proven to kill livestock are trapped and destroyed under the "takings" provision of the Endangered Species Act.

Studies in Minnesota and with recovering wolf populations in the Rockies suggesting that if sufficient wild prey such as deer, elk, moose, beaver, and antelope are available, wolves will usually avoid humans and their livestock. Wolves may even prove an unwitting ally for ranchers in their eternal war with coyotes; studies within Yellowstone National Park have shown that Canadian wolves released into the park three years ago have killed off nearly one-half of the coyote packs once resident there.

North Dakotans may become more comfortable with federal or state endangered species laws on a local level if they can legally eliminate nuisance wolves that attack livestock. Current Wildlife Services' policy is to attempt to live capture "problem" animals and either turn them over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for relocation, or transport them to zoos, Huffman stated. Such a policy could work as long as landowners receive financial compensation for loss of livestock or pets, and should include a provision for eliminating proven livestock or pet killers. In the Rocky Mountains region the private conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife has a successful financial compensation program that reimburses ranchers who lose livestock to wolf depredation. If wolves ever establish residence in North Dakota, such a program could conceivably be implemented here.

Wolf seen in North Dakota
Wolves seen in North Dakota are likely juveniles dispersing
from their pack, looking to establish their own territory.     

The fact that 10 wolves live in the small Spruce Woods Reserve in southern Manitoba surrounded by a "sea" of agriculture demonstrates wolf adaptability if given an opportunity to survive. In Europe, wolves are even returning to some former haunts in densely populated Germany and France.

Today, only in northeastern Alberta's Wood Buffalo National Park on the extreme northern end of the Great Plains does the ancient spectacle of large wolves hunting wild herds of bison exist. While such scenes may never again be observed on the plains of the United States, wolves could return to North and South Dakota, offering a tiny glimpse of wild America as it once was in these states.


KIRK D. JOHNSON is a North Dakota native who now lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. In our February 1998 issue, he wrote about occurrences of mountain lions and bears in North Dakota.
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