A large canine taken by a coyote hunter early in January east of Hillsboro, N.D., in Traill County has been confirmed as a gray wolf.

The hunter apparently shot the gray wolf, a protected species rarely seen in North Dakota, thinking it was a coyote.

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According to Gary Rankin, district game warden for the state Game and Fish Department in Larimore, N.D., the hunter called him after realizing the animal probably was too big to be a coyote. Rankin then picked up the animal.

"It was more than twice as large as you'd expect a coyote to be," Rankin said.

Because gray wolves are listed as federally protected and not under state jurisdiction, Rankin contacted Rich Grosz, a special agent for the U.S. Fish in Wildlife Service in Bismarck, who took possession of the animal.

Last week, Rankin said he talked to Grosz, who said results from DNA testing confirmed the animal was a gray wolf. Rankin said the wolf was a female that weighed about 80 pounds. By comparison, Rankin said, the largest coyote killed during a recent tournament in Northwood, N.D., weighed about 33 pounds.

Rankin said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating the incident, and it would be up to the federal agency whether to press charges.

Grosz wasn't immediately available for comment Friday afternoon.

A longtime state game warden, Rankin said he's never encountered a gray wolf in the Red River Valley, although a coyote hunter shot one along the Red River north of Grand Forks perhaps 15 or 20 years ago.

Still, there have been occasional sightings -- most likely wolves that ventured across the Red River from Minnesota -- and forested areas such as the Pembina Hills and Turtle Mountains would be the most likely places to encounter gray wolves, Rankin said.

Minnesota has an estimated population of about 3,000 wolves, mostly in the northern part of the state, according to the Department of Natural Resources. That's more than twice the level called for under federal recovery goals, but several attempts to return the gray wolf to state jurisdiction have failed in the courts.

"For them to show up in the Red River Valley, there's not much of a future for one," Rankin said. "This open agricultural land just isn't a place where you'd expect a wolf to show up."

Female gray wolves typically weigh from 50 to 85 pounds, while males can weigh as much as 110 pounds, the DNR said.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.