Bill puts wolves in crosshairs

A bill filed Tuesday by Rep. Betty Olson, R-Prairie City, would classify wolves as predators or varmints and allow people to shoot them. Pioneer photo by Mark Watson

SPEARFISH — A bill filed Tuesday with the state legislature would characterize wolves in South Dakota as predators or varmints and allow people to shoot them provided the federal government lifts their protected status.

Currently wolves are federally endangered species in Western South Dakota. In 2012 wolves residing in the Great Lakes population, which includes Eastern South Dakota, were removed from the federal Endangered Species Act. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on plan that would delist the wolves West River as well.

“We have been in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and we are hopeful that they will be delisted sometime this spring,” said Emmett Keyser, the assistant director of the Division of Wildlife for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

House Bill 1132, filed by Rep. Betty Olson, R-Prairie City, calls for wolves to be considered predators or varmints just the same as coyotes, foxes, skunks, gophers, ground squirrels, chipmunks, jackrabbits, marmots, porcupines, crows, and prairie dogs.

If the bill passes and the wolves are delisted, anyone with a hunting license allowing them to shoot predators would be able to shoot wolves.

Olson said everyone she has talked to so far supports the bill.

But the head of the GF&P has concerns with the bill as it is currently written.

“The reason we would oppose the bill is that wolves are still federally protected in Western South Dakota,” said GF&P Secretary Jeff Vonk. “Someone who would shoot a wolf, since it would be classified statewide as a predator, would still be subject to federal prosecution. We don’t want to put our citizens in jeopardy of being in violation of the law.”

However, he said, although not yet filed, Sen. Mike Vhele, R-Mitchell, is drafting a bill that would list wolves as predators and varmints east of the Missouri River. This, Vonk said, he would support.

Wolves are not a common sight in South Dakota. They will periodically traverse the state.

“Over the last 15 to 20 years we’ve had six to eight sightings and a handful of unconfirmed sightings,” Keyser said. “Much like with mountain lions, it is primarily young males that go on a walkabout across the country seeking new territory.”

Keyser said there is not suitable habitat for the large predator in the state.

“Not with the presence of people in the Black Hills, it’s  the livestock and pets and the huge potential for conflict,” Keyser said. “While there may be some limited habitat, wolves need huge territories with high populations of large, big game animals.”

But still, there have been wolves in South Dakota and two died here in 2012.

In February 2012 a wolf was shot near Custer in a case of mistaken identity. It was determined to originate from the Great Lakes population of wolves that includes Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. In May 2012 a wolf was hit by a vehicle near Pine Ridge. Genetic studies showed that it originated from the Yellowstone area.

Scott Larson, a field supervisor with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Pierre, said a proposed rule by the service regarding the delisting wolves in West River should be issued this spring. 

“It will be part of a larger effort,” Larson said. “The Rocky Mountain population and the Great Lakes populations have been delisted, but they are protected in most of the Lower 48 where we don’t have plans for any recovery efforts. … When you have a recovered population you have transients that move out into area where there is not suitable habitat. It doesn’t make any sense to have the protection status different.”

Lumping the large sections of the country together for delisting the wolves will result in a long process full of challenges, Vonk said.

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