FAIRBANK, Iowa — A coyote hunter in February shot a wolf near Fairbank in northwest Buchanan County — the first documented wolf in Iowa since at least 1925, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
The confirmation of the animal as a wolf, by DNA testing, closes the circle on big predators that, though once exterminated, have re-entered Iowa, at least in small numbers — black bear, mountain lion and now the wolf.
“I was surprised but not that surprised,” said DNR furbearer specialist Vince Evelsizer, noting that both Wisconsin and Minnesota have substantial wolf populations.
“Large animals can cover great distances, and state lines mean nothing to them,” he said.
Evelsizer’s lack of surprise was foretold in the last paragraph of an annual update of a gray wolf status report written last summer: “If the current trend continues, I think it is only a matter of time before a validated wild gray wolf is killed in the state,” he wrote.
Although wolves are a protected species in Iowa, the DNR declined to issue a citation to the hunter, who has not been publicly identified.
The hunter who shot the wolf thought he was shooting at a similar-appearing coyote, which is legal to shoot in the state, DNR Conservation Officer Scott Kinseth said.
Suspecting that he might have shot a wolf, the hunter took it to the DNR office in Manchester, where biologists examined the animal and took samples for DNA testing.
Kinseth said the hunter went out of his way to cooperate with the DNR, and he had no idea he was doing anything morally or legally wrong when he shot what he thought was a coyote.
The message going forward, he said, is, “They are protected animals. We know they are here. Make sure of your target. If in doubt, don’t shoot.”
Evelsizer said the DNA test strongly indicated that the animal was of the same genetic background as the wolves residing in Minnesota and Wisconsin, each of which has a sufficient population to justify recent hunting seasons.
He described the wolf as a healthy female weighing between 65 and 70 pounds, which would be about normal for a Minnesota or Wisconsin wolf, but would be about twice the size of the average coyote.
Two different subspecies of gray wolf occurred in Iowa. The Great Plains wolf, which preyed primarily on stragglers of bison herds, lived in the western two-thirds of the state.
The gray (timber) wolf lived in the eastern third.
Encouraged by generous bounties, Iowa settlers, who considered wolves a threat to livestock, systematically killed them or drove them from the state.
The DNR, in the 2012 wolf status report, said a reliable researcher concluded that Iowa’s last valid wolf record occurred in Butler County in the winter of 1884-1885.
The report also included a reference to a timber wolf taken in Shelby County in 1925 that appeared to be wild but may have escaped from captivity before being shot.
Wolves were fully protected in the contiguous 48 states in August 1974 under the Endangered Species Act. In 2009, the gray wolf was removed from the endangered and threatened list — but, as a designated furbearer, the gray wolf remains protected under state code in Iowa.
Minnesota wolves have been edging southeastward along the Mississippi River toward Iowa, according to the DNR status report, which noted that a wolf was shot in 2002 in Houston County, Minn., which shares a border with Iowa’s Allamakee County.
In 2010, the DNR report stated, two known wolflike animals were taken in Sioux and Guthrie counties.
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