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Vernon Stenger ranch
Vernon and Jackie Stenger were startled one morning in mid-March when they looked up from feeding cattle to see three wolves strolling by. The couple operate a ranch in Box Elder Canyon about 15 miles southeast of North Platte.
‘We were feeding the cows around 8 a.m.,” Jackie told the Bulletin. “We looked across the fence, and there they were, about 300 yards away.”
They were dark colored, with a smooth gait and big long bushy tails, Jackie said. Definitely not coyotes.
“We watched them for a few seconds,” she said. “They were on a mission, moving at a slow lope. They didn’t look around. They ran totally differently than a coyote, much smoother. They seemed determined to get somewhere.”
A light snow fell the night before, so the Stengers went down to take a look at the tracks after they finished feeding. The tracks were much larger than coyotes.
The Stengers, in the midst of calving season, were somewhat concerned that the wolves might attack baby calves, but as of mid-May they haven’t had any signs of it, at least none that they know of.
“We calve in some rough canyons, so it’s possible one would be missing and we wouldn’t know about it,” Jackie said.
Vernon Stenger said neighbors in Cottonwood Canyon told him they have also seen three wolves moving together.
Reports of wolves arrive regularly at the Nebraska Game and Parks Department, said Sam Wilson, the department’s fur bearer and carnivore biologist
Herchel Foster of Gothenburg said he saw two wolves around noon May 4 about halfway between Gothenburg and Arnold.
They acted somewhat tame, Foster said.
The pair was along the right (east) side of the road, just “a couple blocks off” the highway, he said.
He said his wife saw them first and thought maybe they were deer or donkeys or something.
“They were pretty big,” Foster said.
The Fosters were traveling with their son Rex and daughter Rita to Arnold to attend a funeral, but took time to turn around and look again. He said they watched a little while before the wolves ran off.
Foster said they were not coyotes or dogs.
“I’ve hunted for more than 50 years,” he said.
Foster thinks the state Game and Parks department is dropping wolves off in Nebraska and not telling anyone.
“They acted kind of tame, like they didn’t know what to do,” he said.
Kenny Call of Thedford saw a wolf in early March along the highway between Thedford and Brownlee, according to a report by Heather Johnson in the other North Platte newspaper, the Telegraph.
Burwell resident Pat Burnham said she saw one March 25 while checking a calving lot, according to Johnson’s report in the Telegraph.
Wilson said reported sightings are common, but are nearly impossible to confirm.
He said dogs are sometimes crossed with wolves, so dogs would look similar, and a coyote is much smaller, but still similar.
Wolf’s paw prints look a lot like a dog’s prints, too, he said, so it’s hard to tell.
He said cameras set up along suspected trails have not turned up photos of wolves.
“It’s hard to know without genetic analysis,” he said. “In all the times we’ve had reports, we’ve only had one confirmed sighting – a wolf was shot near Spalding in 2002. Genetic testing showed it came from a Great Lakes wild pack, in the Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin area."
But a year ago, a wolf was found dead along U.S. Highway 18, few miles east of the town of Pine Ridge, just across the Nebraska border.
Trudy Ecoffey, senior wildlife biologist for the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, said the wolf weighed 130 pounds. It looked like it was hit by a vehicle on May 15, 2012, according to a report in the Rapid City Journal.
That wolf wore a transmitter collar from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which showed that it made a 400-mile journey from Yellowstone National Park to southwest South Dakota in less than two months.
Mike Jimenez of Jackson, Wyo., said information received from the radio-transmitter collar on the wolf identified it as a 3- to 4-year-old male that was part of a wolf pack in the southeast part of Yellowstone.
“This wolf was born in Yellowstone Park and was part of the Yellowstone Delta Pack -- about a dozen animals in the very far southeastern corner of the park,” Jimenez told the Rapid City Journal. “It was a pack member there until late March or early April and then it took off.”
The wolf was checked and weighed by tribal wildlife specialists in Pine Ridge, who contacted the Fish and Wildlife Service. Its weight made it a “sizable wolf,” Jimenez said.
Wilson, who said he didn't know about that wolf until the Bulletin told him about it, said the typical mature male wolf weighs 100 pounds and females, 85 pounds. By contrast, an average male coyote weighs 20-30 pounds, he said.
Mountain lions across northern Neb.
Although the Nebraska Game and Parks Department is non-committal about wolves in the state, it knows there are dozens of mountain lions in Nebraska.
The department has confirmed sightings of mountain lions based on unambiguous evidence.
Most confirmed sightings are in the panhandle area, near states that also have resident mountain lions -- Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.
Mountain lions can roam hundreds of miles, especially young males looking for new territory. One mountain lion was once found on the East Coast and was thought to have wandered from a western state – a distance of about 1,500 miles.
Closer to home, a young male showed up in Kearney two years ago and was shot by police. The big cats have also appeared in Omaha, South Sioux City, St. Paul, Harrison and four times in Scottsbluff.
A group of lions took up permanent residence in the panhandle in the early 2000s and were confirmed in 2005. Currently, an estimated 18 mountain lions live there, Sam Wilson of the Game and Parks Department said.
Mountain lions prefer rougher, wooded areas and primarily prey on deer. Mountain lions are most active at night. Besides deer, mountain lions also prey on elk, bighorn sheep, small game, porcupines and a variety of other species, Wilson said.
After killing their prey, the lions often drag or carry the carcass under a bush or tree where they can eat in relative privacy, and after feeding, the carcass is often covered with brush and leaves to hide it so it can't be easily detected by scavengers.
If you are confronted by a mountain lion, Wilson advises that you don’t run because the lion might be encouraged to give chase. Stay calm. Look as big as possible by opening your coat or raising a backpack if you have one. But if you are attacked, by all means, fight back.
People are allowed to kill a lion if it is threatening or attacking anyone or livestock. That's just common sense, Wilson said. If a livestock owner suspects a lion has already killed their animals, they should contact the Game and Parks Department, which could provide a 30-day permit to hunt the lion, Wilson said.
The Game and Parks Commission is considering a hunting season on mountain lions. The commission met May 24 in Chadron, and heard a staff recommendation to create the season.
Following a public hearing, the commissioners did not accept staff recommendations for a mountain lion hunting season. Instead, the commissioners directed wildlife staff to bring recommendations to the July 26 commission meeting in Lincoln.
The season would have run from Jan. 1–Feb. 9, or until three mountain lion males and 1 female were killed. There could have been another six-week season later, depending on how many, if any, were killed.
Hunters would have a chance at 100 permits that would be granted by lottery to Nebraska residents. Another permit would go to the person willing to pay the most for it at an auction, under the proposal.
This report was first published in the May 15 print edition of the North Platte Bulletn.