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Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) Occurrences in the Dakotas


In the lower 48 states the gray wolf (Canis lupus) is usually thought of as an animal of forested wilderness although the species historically occupied nonforested habitats including the vast grasslands in the center of the continent. The journals of Lewis and Clark are rich with records of wolves in the region that would become North and South Dakota (Dakotas) (Burroughs, 1961). As Europeans settled the Dakotas the endemic wolves were persecuted, resulting in extirpation by the 1920s or 30s (Young, 1944). Lack of forest cover probably made eradication easier than in heavily forested parts of the U.S. Individual wolves were killed in the Dakotas in 1944, 1945, 1946, and 1970 (R. M. Nowak, pers. comm.). The records from the 1940s are probably the result of a brief range expansion (Nowak, 1983); the 1970 specimen was from southeastern South Dakota and remains an anomaly. The long-term trend during this period was a reduction in wolf distribution in the U.S. and Canada.

In 1974 the Endangered Species Act of 1973 protected wolves throughout the conterminous 48 states. Subsequently, the neighboring Minnesota population increased from 736-950 in 1971-72 to an estimated 1,500-1,750 in 1989 (Fuller et al., 1992), with specific increases and range expansion occurring near the western and southwestern edge of the species' range (Berg and Kuehn, 1982; Fritts and Mech, 1981; Fritts et al., 1992; Fuller et al., 1992; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1992). In addition, a small population of wolves recolonized Montana during this period (Ream et al., 1991). In 1980 wolves in Manitoba were afforded big game status, providing them partial protection. This paper documents the occurrence of wolves into the nonforested regions of the Dakotas and the potential for recolonization of the region.

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