Published May 05, 2011, 02:44 PM

North Dakota caught in the middle of federal wolf plan

The Obama administration’s decision Wednesday to remove gray wolves from federal protection in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes regions stands to cause confusion among landowners and wildlife managers in North Dakota, which falls between the two regions.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

The Obama administration’s decision Wednesday to remove gray wolves from federal protection in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes regions stands to cause confusion among landowners and wildlife managers in North Dakota, which falls between the two regions.

According to Greg Link, assistant wildlife division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, the state east of U.S. Highway 83 falls within the Great Lakes population segment of gray wolves. But the state west of Highway 83 isn’t part of either the Great Lakes or Northern Rocky Mountain areas.

The Northern Rocky Mountains region is limited to wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of Washington and Oregon, while the Great Lakes region includes wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, along with parts of the Dakotas and a handful of other Midwest states.

Link said the distinction creates a dilemma for landowners in the western part of the state if a wolf problem occurs. Wednesday’s plan would return management to the state east of Highway 83, while wolves in the western part of the state would remain under federal protection.

While North Dakota doesn’t have a resident wolf population, Link said the Game and Fish Department would classify wolves east of 83 as a state furbearer, and landowners would be able to kill problem animals, even though the state wouldn’t offer a hunting season.

West of that line, landowners would have to work through federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division to handle problem animals.

That was a drawback with previous plans to remove wolves from Endangered Species Act protection, as well, Link said.

“We always wanted to either have the whole state in or the whole state out” of federally protected status, Link said. “It gets confusing for our landowners and property owners in North Dakota as far as how you deal with wolves.”

Eventually, he said, if the Fish and Wildlife Service gets through the latest “delisting” proposal without lawsuits that have derailed previous efforts to return management to the states, western North Dakota and other areas without recognized wolf populations would have management authority.

But for now, he said, the proposal only would return state control to wolves east of Highway 83.

“Western North Dakota falls into no-man’s land,” he said.

Link said there are occasional reports of wolves in North Dakota, including confirmed sightings as far west as the Killdeer Mountains. There also have been sightings in southeastern and northeastern North Dakota, he said, including a wolf mistakenly shot by a coyote hunter in January near Hillsboro.

Minnesota has about 3,000 wolves, while Montana has an estimated population of 566 wolves. Link said wolves in North Dakota generally are young males trying to find new territory.

“Even in eastern North Dakota, which they’re including in the western Great Lakes area, we’ll have a wolf at times, but it’s something we don’t see very often,” Link said. “Periodically, there’s an individual animal, but they are a pack animal, and really, an individual isn’t going to set up shop by himself.”

While Wednesday’s announcement would return wolf management to Minnesota and other Great Lakes states, Western lawmakers already had attached a rider to the federal budget bill mandating the move to lift protections for 1,300 wolves in the Northern Rockies. The rider, which barred any courtroom challenges, marked the first time Congress has removed an animal listed under the endangered act. Protections for the Rocky Mountain wolves were to be lifted effective with a notice today in the Federal Register.

In the Great Lakes region, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have management plans to keep wolf populations at healthy levels while allowing government agents to kill animals that can't be driven away. None would allow hunting or trapping for at least five years, although the states could revise those plans.

Montana wildlife officials have proposed a public hunt to kill as many as 220 wolves.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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