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By Paul Hammel Omaha World-Herald
Federal officials have confirmed that a gray wolf was shot and killed in the Sandhills south of Bassett in November.
It’s only the second confirmed case of a wolf being taken in Nebraska in more than a century.
The 81-pound male wolf was shot by a rancher checking on his livestock Nov. 16. He told authorities that he had recently lost three yearling calves to what he suspected was predation by coyotes.
The dead wolf, which had coloration like a coyote, was much larger than a coyote, which led to an investigation by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
DNA testing confirmed that the animal was a gray wolf that originated with packs in the western Great Lakes, one of only two regions with active breeding packs in the lower 48 states.
Records obtained by the World-Herald indicate that the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the rancher — whose name was obscured in the records — because no criminal intent was found. The wolf was shot near a center pivot-irrigated field about 22 miles south of Bassett.
In late October, the Trump administration announced that gray wolves were being delisted as a federal endangered species, effective Jan. 4, except for a small population of Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona.
The delisting has been challenged in court by a group of conservation organizations, which maintain that wolves have reestablished in only about 10% of their historic range. It’s the latest in a string of legal battles over steps by the federal government to delist wolves since 2000.
A Nebraska wildlife biologist said last week that he wasn’t surprised that a gray wolf had been confirmed in the state.
The number of the large, secretive animals has grown in both the Yellowstone area of the Rocky Mountains and the northern reaches of Minnesota and Wisconsin. That increases the chances that a “disperser” might wander into Nebraska, according to Sam Wilson, furbearer and carnivore program manager at Game and Parks.
“This is something that has been happening in all the surrounding states,” Wilson said. “We do expect from time to time that we’ll see dispersing wolves here.
“Some will walk a really long ways as they look for new territory,” he said.
While wolves are much larger than much more common coyotes (80 to 120 pounds versus 30 to 35 pounds), Wilson said a DNA test is required to confirm that an animal is a wild wolf, rather than a dog-wolf hybrid. Wolf tracks are very similar to large dogs, he added, and their coloration can be similar, as was the case with the tan-and-dark gray wolf near Bassett.
Tissue from the Bassett wolf was tested at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife lab in Oregon, which confirmed that the male was from the Great Lakes region. Federal records did not indicate the age of the wolf.
This was the first confirmed wolf in Nebraska since 2002, when a 100-pound male was shot near Spalding, in central Nebraska, by a coyote hunter. Before that, the last reported wolf kills in the state were in 1913.
The rebound of wolves in the lower 48 states has been hailed as a conservation success story.
Because of hunting, including countywide hunts in Nebraska in the 1890s to encircle and shoot wolves and coyotes, wolves were nearly extinct in the contiguous U.S., except for a small population in northern Minnesota.
In 1995-96, 66 wolves from Canada were introduced in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. And because of federal protection, which began in 1967, existing populations of wolves have rebounded and expanded. By 2019, there were an estimated 4,400 wolves in the Great Lakes region and 2,400 in the Rocky Mountains of the U.S.
In 2013, the North Platte Telegraph reported that single wolves were seen near Burwell and Thedford. A year before that, a road-killed wolf was found east of Pine Ridge, South Dakota — just north of the Nebraska border. That wolf had a radio collar, which indicated that it had wandered 400 miles over 54 days from its home in Yellowstone National Park.
In December 2015, a wolf was confirmed killed in Osceola County, Iowa, which is about 80 miles northeast of South Sioux City.
The January delisting of wolves means that it’s now legal to shoot wolves in Nebraska year-round. A handful of states have regulated wolf hunts, including Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Controversy was sparked when Wisconsin allowed a hunt last month.
At least four states have wolf protection laws, including Colorado, where voters passed a ballot measure last year to reintroduce and manage wolves in the state.
So are wolves moving into Nebraska just as mountain lions did in the 1990s?
Not really, Wilson said.
There’s no indication that wolves are breeding in Nebraska, only that solitary animals are wandering this way from time to time, he said. Unlike mountain lions, which had solid populations in the Black Hills of South Dakota and other adjacent states, breeding packs of wolves are at least 300 miles away, Wilson said.
“We’re much, much farther from wolves,” he said. “Cougars were right on our doorstep.”