By Stephen Lee
A Britton, South Dakota man hunting coyotes in Marshall County shot what appears to be a gray wolf and federal officials are testing the animal carcass. Wolves are protected under the federal endangered species list.
But federal officials don’t always prosecute those who kill wolves mistakenly.
The Aberdeen American News reported that Mike Werner says he was hunting coyotes in a slough near Clear Lake, which is about 20 miles southeast of Britton, on Jan. 13. He shot and killed what he thought was a big, dark coyote about 100 yards away. Getting up on it, Werner said he quickly realized it appeared to be a wolf, so he left it where he shot it and called the local state game warden.
Mike Klosowski, conservation officer supervisor with the state Game, Fish & Parks, said his office contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is investigating the shooting. That includes testing to determine if it is a gray wolf. If so, Werner could face charges.
A photo posted online of Werner with the dead animal in the back of a pickup truck appears to show a wolf, not a coyote.
Werner said the animal had an old injury on one foot where it apparently had lost a couple of toes in a trap; it also had part of a trapping device on another foot, the American News reported.
Minnesota has a gray wolf, or timber wolf, population estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 over the past two decades and sightings are common in the northern part of the state. But it’s unusual to see a wolf in northeast South Dakota, wildlife officials say.
With established wolf populations in Yellowstone Park in northwest Wyoming, in northern Minnesota and in Canada, the animals do travel through South Dakota at times.
Hunting wolves was legal in Minnesota for time between 2011 and late 2014. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the animal off the endangered species list in 2011 and that opened up hunting the animal in the Great Lakes region for the first time in 40 years, according to news reports.
In December 2014, a federal judge put the wolf back on the endangered list, putting an end to hunting wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
For a year or two, wolves were hunted and trapped in Minnesota, and in Wisconsin and Michigan. An estimated 1,500 wolves were killed, the Humane Society said.
When hunting was banned again by the federal judge decision in December 2014, 272 wolves had been killed during that year’s hunting and trapping season in Minnesota, and 154 in Wisconsin, but only 22 in Michigan, according to federal officials, The Associated Press reported.
The Minnesota Department of National Resources reported last fall the state’s wolf population increased 25 percent because of more deer over the previous year, to about 2,850.
Hunters do mistake wolves for coyotes, although the size difference normally is significant: most adult wolves weigh over 70 pounds with many well over 100 pounds, while few coyotes get above 45 pounds.
But it typically takes scientific testing to be certain.
A year ago, a man shot video of a wolf outside Rice, Minnesota, just north of St. Cloud in the central part of the state.
Federal officials tend to prosecute people for killing wolves if they make a case it was not accidental or a mistake.
In September 2017, grouse hunter Justin Bailey reported that a pack of wolves harassed and attacked his hunting dog near Isabella, Minnesota. His nephews were hunting with him. The six wolves were not scared of the people, Bailey said, even after he fired his shotgun in the air, trying to spook them. His dog was pinned down by a wolf for a time but was not injured.
Federal law prohibits killing wolves, even if they are attacking livestock or pets; only protecting human life is an exception.
In northern Minnesota, some have served time and others have been banned from owning firearms after being convicted of killing wolves. It usually involves lying about the incidents to authorities.
For example, in November 2013, a Duluth jury convicted Vern Hoff of lying to federal investigators about a 2010 incident of two wolves being driven over intentionally by his employees and Hoff aiding them in covering up the incident. Prosecutors said he had flouted game laws for decades. He was sentenced to a month in a halfway house and a lifetime ban on possessing hunting guns, the Star Tribune reported.
In a case somewhat similar to Werner’s, Dan Sveen, of Adams, North Dakota, shot a wolf on Feb. 19, 2017 west of Edinburg in northeast North Dakota, saying he was coyote hunting.
He only wounded it and a state game warden tracked it down and killed it after a third party reported seeing the shooting.
Sveen contacted a game warden the next day and said he had been hunting coyotes and didn’t realize it was a wolf. It was a male that weighed 80 pounds, state Game & Fish officials told the Grand Forks Herald.
Sveen, who is about 28, pleaded guilty March 27 to a state Class B misdemeanor charge of hunting a furbearer out of season and paid fines and fees of $700, said Jackie Lundstrom, enforcement operations supervisor for the North Dakota Game & Fish Department.
Walsh County State’s Attorney Kelley Cole said Sveen cooperated and had no criminal history, which affected his sentence. He also received a deferred imposition of the sentence, which means after a year it can be taken off the books.
Cole and Lundstrom said North Dakota state game officials and federal wildlife officials decide on a case-by-case basis which agency handles a wolf shooting.