Chris Huber, Journal staff
A gray wolf has appeared where he isn’t supposed to be: the Black Hills.
The proof of his presence looks like a clip from a nature documentary, a video that shows a lean, long and powerful gray wolf trotting up a forest hillside and stopping at a distance of about 70 yards. The wolf gives an intense stare back toward the camera for only a moment before scurrying into the safety and seclusion of the aspen- and pine-filled forest.
The scene wasn’t filmed in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, or Minnesota, the wolf’s usual habitat. It was shot less than a week ago in a favorite elk-hunting spot by rural Hot Springs resident Lance Verhulst, who is keeping quiet about the exact location, saying only that it is north of Jewel Cave.
Verhulst, 47, and a friend were driving along bumpy U.S. Forest Service roads scouting for elk at about 6:30 p.m. last Friday when they saw the animal. Verhulst recorded the whole thing on video.
“We came around a little bend in the road, and there it was,” Verhulst said, speculating the animal must have been sleeping or lying down and didn’t seem overly concerned with the vehicle.
Thirty yards. That was the distance at which Verhulst first saw the animal he estimated to be 80 pounds. He scrambled for this camera and was able to record it for roughly 45 seconds before it trotted up the hill and disappeared into the woods.
Verhulst posted the video on YouTube, but the fuss that erupted shortly after caused him to remove it and regret ever posting it. The video was then picked up posted again by another website.
“If I knew all the trouble it was going to cause for me,” he said, “I wouldn’t have ever put it up.”
Dozens of hunters, conservationists and the just plain curious from around the country flooded his phone with calls, and he wanted them to stop. In the past there has been fierce debate over the existence of wolves in the Black Hills and what to do with them if they are here. His video may have sparked that again.
“We are pretty confident from the video it is a wolf,” said John Kanta, regional wildlife manager for the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks.
“More than likely it is a lone male just traveling through the area though,” Kanta said, explaining that young males sometimes range into the Black Hills from Wyoming or the Great Lakes population in Minnesota.
Verhulst was contacted by the state but didn’t release the exact location to GF&P — or anyone else for that matter— because he doesn’t want a bunch of people looking for a wolf in his elk-hunting spot.
“Because we don’t know exactly where the video was taken, we can’t go out and confirm 100 percent that this is a wolf,” Kanta said while noting that all signs point to its being a male gray wolf.
This video will go into a state database that houses all of the wolf sightings for South Dakota. That database gets between five and a dozen entries a year for sightings in the Black Hills. Most of the sightings are unfounded, but sometimes they can be confirmed Kanta said.
Kanta said the last confirmed wolf in the Black Hills was in 2012, when one was shot in Custer County. DNA testing showed that one came from the Great Lake Region.
Also in 2012, a radio-transmitter-collared wolf from Yellowstone National Park was found dead on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. A black wolf was spotted near Dalton Lake in February 2014 by two loggers, one of whom was Verhulst’s nephew. But GF&P could not confirm that sighting.
Kanta said the most common mistake people make is seeing a large coyote in the woods and thinking it is a wolf.
Verhulst knows what he saw earlier this month. “I go coyote hunting every winter, I know the difference,” he said, and Kanta seems to agree.
In a phone interview with the Journal, Verhulst was nonchalant about the whole incident. An avid hunter, he grew up in Harding County and spends most of his time in the outdoors. This isn’t even the first time he has seen a wolf in the Black Hills.
“I’ve seen three in the past two years,” he said, though he added this was the closest he has ever gotten to one.
Verhulst isn’t sold on the that assessment the Black Hills gets only a few wolves traveling through the area.
“There seems to be a lot more people seeing wolves, and I think the odds are pretty low that every wolf they see is a male traveling through,” Verhulst said.
If there were a population of wolves in the Black Hills, Kanta said the state would know about it.
“Our people are in the woods every day,” he said. “If it was more than a few passing animals, we’d figure it out pretty quickly.”
As for the wolf Verhulst saw, a GF&P wildlife damage specialist will be heading out to the general vicinity of the sighting to look for signs of a wolf and “howl it up,” according to Kanta, who added, “That is kind of a needle-in-a-haystack situation.”
Unless the state finds evidence of a wolf in the area, Verhulst’s report will go into the state’s database as an unconfirmed sighting.
The same video also has drawn the attention of some large conservation groups. Wolf populations in the United States have long been a contentious issue for policymakers, hunters, ranchers and groups trying to protect the animals.
Wolves have been known to attack livestock.
The gray wolf is listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is protected under the Endangered Species Act in most of the country, including western South Dakota. In Montana and Idaho the gray wolf was removed from that list in 2011, allowing for an annual hunting season. The animal is listed as threatened in some spots in the Great Lakes Region, and a hunting season did occur in Minnesota for three years starting in 2012 but has since been discontinued.
Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate working for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the video prompted him to make calls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Wyoming in hopes someone there could get the word out about the presence of a wolf in the Black Hills.
“I want them to release a statement letting people know there is a wolf in South Dakota and that it is under federal protection and illegal to kill,” Robinson said. No such statement has been released.
Robinson said often wolves get mistaken for coyotes and are shot by hunters or ranchers. He wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to educate the public about the differences between the animals.
“The last thing we want is for someone to confuse this animal for a coyote and shoot it,” Robinson said.