Wolves in Wisconsin

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In response to Wisconsin Wolf Population Still Well Over Goal:

Wolves in Wisconsin
Earl Stahl, Ph.D.

When wolves were placed under federal protection in 1978, the population goal for Wisconsin was set at 100. That maximum was later raised to 350 at the insistence of the pro-wolf community. In a news release on April 29, 2014, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources stated that the estimated population is now between 658 and 687 based on early 2014 data. The DNR acknowledges that the count was taken during the 2013-14 winter when the population was at its low point following two years of hunting and trapping. The population will come close to doubling when wolf pups are born in the spring.

It is important to note that the DNR has consistently added the caveat of minimum to its population numbers. The actual population is estimated to be at least 1,500. The DNR does not count wolves on the various Indian reservations in Wisconsin. There are eleven tribes in the state and the five largest reservations total 914 square miles. The tribes have the responsibility for wolves on their lands but they oppose hunting and trapping of wolves. It is safe to assume that wolf reproduction on tribal lands impacts non-tribal lands. As a case in point, a collared wolf has been observed in central Wisconsin and has been reported to the carnivore specialist. The DNR specialist responded that there were no DNR collared wolves in that particular area and that the wolf must have migrated away from one of the tribal reservations. The closest reservation to where the wolf was seen is at a distance of over 70 miles.

The Wisconsin DNR was unable to control wolf populations when the wolves were federally protected. The exception to this was removal of wolves that were proved to be attacking livestock. Wolves that kill deer and elk were not and still are not specifically targeted for removal. When wolves were delisted from protected status in 2011, Wisconsin began to plan hunting and trapping seasons. The first season was held in 2012-13 when 117 wolves were taken. The second season, in 2013-14, removed 257 wolves. As a result, the DNR believes that the population has been reduced by 19%. However, that percentage is based on the DNR’s minimum population, not on the realistic population.

In 2010, before delisting, wolves killed 14 dogs, 47 calves, 16 cows, and 10 sheep in Wisconsin at an estimated cost to the owners of $114,000. Wisconsin paid out over $140,000 in 2013 for wolf depredation. Many hunters resent that the reimbursements come from the fees paid for wolf hunting and trapping tags. None of the pro-wolf groups are currently contributing to the depredation fund. The Center for Biological Diversity has directed some funds to ranchers and farmers for wolf depredation in past years but it has discontinued that policy.

The impact of wolves on the deer and elk populations has been and continues to be a serious problem. DNR data shows that predators killed 68,000 deer in the state in 2009. Predators include wolves, black bears, coyotes, and bobcats. A DNR spokesman also stated that wolves alone kill 20,000 deer per year. Wisconsin introduced 25 elk in 1995 into the northwest part of the state with the intent to begin limited hunting when the herd numbered 200. Due to wolf and bear depredation, the elk herd has not reached its population goal as the population in 2013 was 131. No limited hunts have been held and none are anticipated in the near future. Recently the DNR moved some of the elk in hopes that the rest of the herd will follow in order to minimize depredation. Hunters believe that the only way to reduce depredation is to set higher wolf and bear hunting quotas.

For many years Wisconsin hunters have used Walker hounds to hunt bear. The hounds chase the bear until it is cornered or treed, then the hunter moves in for the shot. The Walker hounds are similar in size and coloration to large Beagles and they are bred to be used as trailing dogs. When Wisconsin announced plans for the first wolf hunt in 2012, the hound hunters asked to be allowed to use their dogs to hunt wolves. The DNR approved this hunting method although the animal rights groups protested that it would result in hounds being killed and injured by wolves. This has not been borne out in fact. The method of using hounds to chase wolves differs from the practice of bear hunting with hounds. The wolf hunters using hounds will try to find a fresh wolf track in the dirt or snow and then release the hounds to scent chase the wolf. Some of the hunters in the group will disperse to adjacent roads to watch for the wolf. A single wolf will rarely attack a group of three or four hounds whereas a wolf pack would be more likely to do so. In order to avoid multiple wolves or wolf packs, the hunters focus on finding the tracks of a single wolf.

Managing the wolf population in Wisconsin is not an easy task. Wolf advocates consistently oppose any hunting and trapping seasons and some characterize hunters and trappers as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. Such attitudes do little to engender rational dialogue. The pro-wolf lobby also opposes the use of dogs to hunt wolves (Wisconsin is the only state that permits using dogs) and has called for a minimum wolf population of 750. Not only is that number unrealistic in light of recent management experience, it is also more than twice the number of the mutually agreed population goal. The DNR also has to balance wolf reduction quotas with the federal requirement that the population in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan not fall below 100 (80 wolves in Wisconsin and 20 in the UP). Given the reproductive capacity of wolves, that number is not likely to be reached absent some catastrophic impact on wolf numbers. The hunting community is not advocating the elimination of wolves but strongly supports higher quota numbers in order to reduce the impact of wolves.