Jim Davidson was traveling south on Interstate 29 between Grand Forks and Fargo one Sunday afternoon last October when he spotted a large gray animal cross in front of him from east to west.

The animal then ran into a ditch filled with cattails and other heavy cover.

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Davidson, of Denver, has an 85-pound German shepherd and a 120-pound yellow Labrador; using the two pets as comparison, he estimates the animal he saw along

I-29 weighed 90 to 100 pounds.

That's considerably larger than a coyote, which would weigh 30 to 40 pounds full-grown.

"The color was mostly charcoal gray," said Davidson, a former Grand Forks-area resident who works as human resources director for the Colorado Historical Society. "The animal did not appear to be a German shepherd or other typical dog breed and did not have a collar. There were no farms in the immediate area."

Convinced the animal was a gray wolf, Davidson reported the sighting to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. He didn't receive a reply, and he didn't give the matter much more thought until hearing recently about a coyote hunter who mistakenly shot a gray wolf east of Hillsboro, N.D. The wolf was a female that weighed about 80 pounds.

Now, Davidson wonders whether the canine he saw along

I-29 could have been the same gray wolf, a federally protected species rarely seen in North Dakota.

Still uncommon

There's no way to know for sure if Davidson actually saw a gray wolf -- he wasn't able to get a photo of the animal -- but even if it was, wildlife experts don't think the wolf will become the next mountain lion, a species that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, especially in western North Dakota.

"We don't believe so, just because of the biology of the animal," said Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "Lions are individual critters that can find crevices in the landscape to live in where they have suitable habitat.

"Wolves, on the other hand, are pack animals. We don't believe we have enough habitat to support a self-sustaining population."

That's not to say gray wolves don't show up in the state from time to time. Before European settlement, wolves were common in North Dakota, according to the Game and Fish Department, and Kreil said he gets a "handful" of reports about wolf sightings every year. Most likely, he said, the wolves wander in from northwestern Minnesota, Riding Mountain National Park in western Manitoba or perhaps even Montana.

"They are rare, but they can show up just about anywhere, just like lions," Kreil said. "But the chance of a wolf pack establishing in North Dakota is pretty rare. Just look at our landscape. There are very few places that you can get more than two miles from a road. They're elusive animals and they like the seclusion. We just don't have very many places with that type of seclusion."

Not far away

No doubt, though, wolves are never very far away from the Red River Valley. Stuart Bensen, conservation officer for the Department of Natural Resources in Erskine, Minn., said he knows of several confirmed sightings in his work area, which includes Polk County. And in May 2007, a gray wolf with mange was killed in Thief River Falls after it was found under the deck of a home right in city limits.

"They drift through," Bensen said. "I've seen tracks out by Rydell refuge (near Erskine), no doubt about it."

A lot of times, Bensen said, the wolves will be younger males, perhaps driven from a pack or just striking out on their own.

"Critters travel a lot," Bensen said. "If a person hears their dog bark at night, it's not always barking at a raccoon."

Bensen spent 17 years working as a conservation officer in Roseau, Minn., a part of northwestern Minnesota where wolves are more abundant. Even there, Bensen said, seeing a wolf wasn't a regular occurrence. That attests to their elusive nature.

"In that 17 years, I believe I saw about a dozen out in the wild, and I spent a ton of time out there," Bensen said. "Two of them, I drove right up to. I rolled the window down, we looked at each other and we were 20 feet apart. One was in my yard. He just sat there and looked at me, and then he just got sick of me and walked away."

State control elusive

Despite North Dakota's marginal wolf habitat, the eastern part of the state is considered part of the Western Great Lakes wolf population, the bulk of which resides in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Minnesota has an estimated population of about 3,000 wolves, more than twice the number called for under federal recovery guidelines. The state has regained management a couple of different times in recent years, but court cases have forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to resume control.

The part of North Dakota west of U.S. Highway 83 is part of the Northern Rockies wolf population segment.

Ironically, Kreil said, the Game and Fish Department would have handled the wolf shooting near Hillsboro if not for the latest lawsuit from animal rights groups. The Fish and Wildlife Service, he said, wants to return wolf management to the states, but many people don't understand that.

"If it wasn't for that lawsuit, the guy would have taken a wolf out of season, but it would have been just a state furbearer," Kreil said -- and not a potential federal offense.

Service authorities continue to investigate the shooting of the wolf near Hillsboro.

As for Davidson, who spotted the large animal last October along I-29, he says he has a great memory of the encounter.

"It was a treat for me to see such an animal after having only seen foxes and coyotes in Colorado," Davidson said in an e-mail. "My dad was a rural mail carrier for the post office in Grand Forks and Hatton for many years, and he never saw a wolf during his career."

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