We have had a rare visitor to our state. Some of you may have heard the recent news that a wolf was shot near Hillsboro this past January.

It might surprise you, but wolves used to be abundant in the Great Plains. Most everyone is familiar with the shooting, trapping, and poisoning of wolves during the early European settlement of the state. But their demise started with the slaughter of the bison, their principal food source. Here is some of what Vernon Bailey said about wolves in his A Biological Survey of North Dakota published in 1926.

“According to the records of early explorers wolves were extremely abundant over all of North Dakota, but after the disappearance of the buffalo they were poisoned and trapped in such great numbers that they rapidly disappeared from most of their haunts.”

Bailey cites several early references attesting to the abundance of wolves in the state, including several from the journals of Lewis and Clark. He also cites the journal of H. M. Brackenridge from June 23, 1811 near what is now Mandan:

…“great numbers of wolves were now seen in every direction; we could hardly go 40 yards from the buffalo, before a half a dozen would show themselves. It was amusing to see them peeping over hillocks, while we pelted them with stones.”

John James Audubon also noted the abundance of wolves during his visit to the upper Missouri near the confluence with the Yellowstone River during the summer of 1843:

“These animals are extremely abundant on the Missouri River and in adjacent country. Some days we saw from 12 to 25 wolves.

By the turn of the century the wolf was basically absent from North Dakota. Wolf sightings remained rare until after they became protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1974. Wolves in Minnesota began to increase, and not surprisingly North Dakota sightings began to increase by about the 1980’s. Resident populations of wolves can now be found in Minnesota and Montana, as well as Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Most, if not all, of the wolves documented in the state are dispersing from populations in those neighboring states and provinces.

Some people have speculated that a resident population may exist within the state. For example, a federal wildlife official was reported to have observed a wolf den and tracks of both an adult and pup in the Turtle Mountains in the 1990’s. However, due to the few sightings since, they appear not to have become established. Officials state that there is no resident population of wolves exists in North Dakota. Few, if any, places are suitable for a resident population, plus many wolves that come into the state, as we have seen recently, are apt to be shot.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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