Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wolves reappearing in the Sandhills of Nebraska?

Residents report spotting the animals; Game and Parks officials aren't so sure

Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 10:50 am, Wed Apr 3, 2013. 

It's been 100 years since wolves disappeared from the Nebraska Sandhills, but ranchers in the region believe the animals are making a comeback. Proving the reappearance, however, will be tricky.

Sam Wilson is the furbearer and carnivore program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. He said wolves were once native to the state, but were wiped out a long time ago. "The last two were killed in 1913 - one on the Dismal River and the other near Oconto," Wilson said. "We get a lot of reports of wolves, but haven't had any confirmed sightings since one was shot at Spalding in 2002."

Kenny Call, Thedford resident, thinks he saw a wolf four months ago while driving on Highway 83 between Thedford and Brownlee. He said it was standing alongside the road. He described it as light gray and quite a bit larger than a coyote. "I thought I was seeing things," Call said. "I slowed down to watch it and would have taken a picture, but I didn't have a camera with me. It was darn sure a wolf. I know the difference between a coyote and a wolf."

Pat Burnham, resident of Burwell, had a similar experience on March 25 while checking a calving lot. The wolf-like animal she saw stood out because it was white, and the cattle around it were black.
"I'd say it was over 3 foot tall and over 1 1/2 feet wide," Burnham said. "I opened the tractor door, leaned out and took a photo, but when I closed my phone, the picture didn't save. "

She used the tractor to scare the animal off then reported it to a game warden. Wilson said she did the right thing. He said all reports are taken seriously - they are simply hard to prove. "Wolf-dog hybrids are allowed in Nebraska, and there are hundreds if not thousands of these animals," Wilson said. "It's difficult, if not impossible, to tell them apart from a full wolf."

He said tracks aren't reliable either. "The tracks of big dogs, like labs, are comparable to those of a wolf," Wilson said. "So if we find them, we don't know for sure what left them. Unless it's wearing a radio collar, it's really hard to confirm a wolf."
Even though no resident populations are known to exist, Wilson said it is possible wolves from the Great Lakes or Yellowstone regions are traveling through Nebraska. He said the one killed at Spalding was connected through genetic analysis to others in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. "They can travel a long way," Wilson said. "Dispersion can be linked to a natural urge to explore, or to younger animals trying to find a new home because older animals push them out. Sometimes whole packs will relocate."
He said a rumor about reintroductions has circulated throughout the Midwest for about 20 years. Wilson said it's not something that's happening and said it's actually prohibited through a Game and Parks policy.