Wolves remain incidental species in North Dakota
North Dakota doesn't have a resident gray wolf population, but the eastern half of the state falls within the boundaries of what's known as the Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment, which includes gray wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Fringe states that partially fall within the boundary are North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and far northern Illinois.
Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, which form the core of the western Great Lakes wolf population, were required to develop state plans for managing gray wolves before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could propose removing the species from Endangered Species Act protection—a process known as delisting—in the early 2000s.
But in North Dakota, where wolves east of U.S. Highway 83 are part of the Great Lakes population, that plan wasn't required because the state isn't critical in terms of wolf recovery, said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.
"We were lumped in still with some of these regulations," Williams said. "It made things confusing, it made things challenging and it made things difficult for everyone involved—our agency and people in general."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to delist Great Lakes wolves on three occasions between 2004 and 2009 because recovery goals had been met, only to have the proposals scuttled in the courts.
In December 2011, the Obama administration again removed western Great Lakes wolves from Endangered Species Act protection.
Western Great Lakes wolves remained under states' control until Dec. 19, 2014, when a federal judge siding with wolf advocacy groups reinstated the species' protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
That returned management to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where it remains to this day.
"I know the Fish and Wildlife Service was frustrated by some of the things, too—they were in and out of court," Williams said. "Wolves were not protected in the eastern part of the state and protected in the western part of the state and now we're back to being protected again. And so, it gets very confusing to keep up with."
North Dakota likely would have been required to develop a state management plan if the Game and Fish Department had planned to offer a wolf season, Williams said. Wolves are considered a furbearer in North Dakota with a closed season.
In his book, "The Mammals of North Dakota," Robert Seabloom, a University of North Dakota professor emeritus of biology, writes that gray wolves historically occurred throughout North Dakota but were wiped out by the late 1800s.
Scattered sightings are reported, which is no surprise, since gray wolves in northwest Minnesota have been confirmed all the way to the Red River, but there are no recent breeding records of wolves in North Dakota, according to Seabloom.
Williams said the department gets occasional wolf reports, including some unconfirmed sightings in the past year in the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge area of north-central North Dakota.
In 2012, hunters in McKenzie County killed what proved to be a wolf. More recently, a large canine shot in February 2017 west of Edinburg, N.D., in Walsh County initially was thought to be a wolf, but genetic testing determined the male animal, which weighed about 80 pounds, was a wolf-dog hybrid.
And in January 2011, a hunter near Hillsboro, N.D., shot a wolf thinking it was a coyote. The female wolf weighed about 80 pounds.
Wolves that wander into North Dakota most likely come from Canada or Minnesota, Williams said.
"It seems like if we have reports and confirmations of wolves in North Dakota, that it's usually in the eastern or northern portions of the state," he said. "And like this one up in Walsh County, when we are able to get our hands on a wolf that is killed in North Dakota, we do genetic testing, and obviously looking at whether it's a true wolf or a hybrid."
In the case of wolf-dog hybrids, where they originate is anyone's guess, he said.
"We wonder the same thing," Williams said. "We just don't talk about wolves very much. They don't rank very high in priority just simply because we don't have very many of them other than knowing we get a wolf from time to time in various parts of the state."
Despite those occasional reports, North Dakota isn't likely to ever have a breeding population of gray wolves, he said.
"I've said this to a lot of folks; with the number of wolves in Minnesota now and in Canada—not saying they're all over the prairie provinces of Canada because they're not—but there is a certain portion of Canada with bush country that does have a good population," Williams said. "They're certainly close enough to us where if our habitat was suitable for wolves, they would be here."