Kevin Woster Journal staff
Yes, it was a wolf.
Testing confirmed that the large canine killed near Custer about six weeks ago was a gray wolf.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also confirmed Thursday that the genetics of the wolf indicated it was from the Great Lakes population that includes parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
The population range does not include South Dakota, in any meaningful way, at least. Wolves need wild expanses of habitat like they have in the woodlands of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, or mountainous Western states.
“Basically, there’s no place for wolves in South Dakota,” said Tony Leif of Pierre, Wildlife Division director for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department. “There’s no place biologically. There’s no place socially.”
Yet wolves show up from time to time, wandering in from established populations to the east or west. They usually don’t stay long. And some of them get shot, even though the animals are protected by law.
Fish and Wildlife officials have declined to discuss specifics of the killing, saying only that it is under investigation.
Gray wolves were once on the federal list of endangered species in the lower 48 states except Minnesota, where they were listed as threatened. But the gray wolf population has recovered to the point where it has been taken off the federal list in a number of states.
Last December, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the de-listing of the gray wolf population in the western Great Lakes region. That included Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and parts of adjoining states.
The de-listing affected South Dakota east of the Missouri River, where authority over wolves has reverted from the federal government to the state. That gives South Dakota wildlife officials management flexibility they don’t have west of the Missouri River, where federal law continues to prevail.
“Although the gray wolf has been de-listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in eastern South Dakota, this animal remains protected under South Dakota law,” said Keith Fisk, state GF&P wildlife damage program administrator. “In western South Dakota, the wolves remain protected under federal law.”
If a landowner complains about wolf attacks on livestock, GF&P officials west of the Missouri River must work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to “address the problem,” Fisk said. For documented wildlife losses east of the river that are determined to be caused by a wolf, GF&P could handle it alone. Officers would probably kill the wolf, Fisk said in a news release.
But people east or west of the river, who see or think they have problems with wolves, are urged to contact state wildlife officials rather than deal with the situation themselves.
“If livestock producers experience depredation from a suspected wolf, they need to contact their local wildlife damage specialist or regional GF&P office right away,” Fisk said.
GF&P has no indication that wolves consistently reproduce in the state or have established a resident population here.
The wolves occasionally seen or killed both east and west of the Missouri River in recent years are believed to have been transient animals. And that is all South Dakota can handle or wants to deal with, Leif said.
“There’s no desire on the state’s part to manage for wolves,” Leif said. “With as inhabited a state as we have, there’s really no place for them.”