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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wisconsin’s updated wolf management plan gets mixed reviews from hunters, conservationists

Wolf policy in the Badger State has been under renewed scrutiny since a two-day hunt in 2021 resulted in more than 200 dead wolves — and lots of bad press.

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Wisconsin natural resources officials unanimously approved the state’s new wolf management plan on Wednesday, replacing a plan first implemented more than two decades ago.

In a daylong meeting, the seven-member Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources, heard dozens of public comments and discussed the finer points of the revised plan to manage the state’s gray wolves, a conservation issue freighted with emotional and political passions.

The board has been plagued recently by partisan infighting, including a legal battle over Republican-appointed board member Fred Prehn’s refusal to vacate his post when his six-year term expired in May 2021 so Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ appointment could take his place. Court filings cited in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed Prehn intended to remain on the board, which had a conservative majority at the time, so he could vote on issues like wolf hunting and regulation of the pervasive environmental toxins known as PFAS.

Prehn eventually resigned in late 2022, and a subsequent flurry of resignations and appointments rendered the board entirely Evers-appointed. Last week, however, four of Evers’ picks — the majority of the board — were rejected by the Republican-controlled state Senate. Evers promptly appointed four new board members the same day, calling Republicans’ move “insanity.”

Those new members, who each have years of natural resources experience, joined the board for the controversial wolf management action on Wednesday.

Hundreds of thousands of gray wolves once roamed much of the United States until a government-backed killing program drove them near extinction. By 1974 the keystone species, Canis lupus, was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Wolf populations subsequently recovered in the western Great Lakes region and reintroduction efforts, including those in Yellowstone National Park, Idaho and Colorado, are ongoing.

Approximately 1,000 gray wolves live in Wisconsin, concentrated near the state’s northwestern border with Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources estimates. That's just below the area's estimated biological carrying capacity of 1,200 to 1,300 wolves.

But as the department's large carnivore specialist Randy Johnson acknowledged Wednesday, the "social" carrying capacity — essentially how many wolves residents will tolerate — is likely lower than that.

Wisconsin law mandates a hunting and trapping season from November through February if an animal is not federally protected. The state's wolf-hunting woes are somewhat moot, therefore, since the species was relisted last year — foreclosing for now the possibility of hunting wolves in the Badger State.

President Joe Biden’s administration and others have appealed the court decision that relisted gray wolves.

After the Trump administration delisted the species, which took effect in January of 2021, Kansas-based Hunter Nation successfully sued the Department of Natural Resources, forcing it to organize a hunting season on short notice. The following month, hunters exceeded the harvest quota in less than three days, sparking a media firestorm. At least 218 wolves were killed, surpassing the quota by around 100.

Wildlife advocates and state tribes both sued to stop a second hunting season that fall, and Dane County Circuit Court judge halted the hunt, in part because there was no firm wolf management plan in place at the time.

Work on a revised plan has continued ever since. The department fielded some 3,500 public comments from hunters, farmers, conservationists and wolf advocates. Its efforts resulted in a plan that, perhaps inevitably, fails to satisfy all stakeholders in both protecting and allowing the killing of an animal so associated with the romantic ideal of wildness.

Wolf management 2.0

Of the revised plan’s many details, perhaps the most highlighted Wednesday were those determining what the state’s wolf population should be and, based on the population, what the harvest quota should be.

The revised plan in fact doesn't list a specific population goal; instead it calls for “adaptive management” to generally keep the population within 800 to 1,200 wolves using a fluid, reactive approach. It also shortens the harvest registration period and implements site-specific hunting rules in zones where wolves most often clash with humans and sub-zones near tribal reservations that permit little to no hunting.

All that helps the agency to maintain a healthy population, reduce wolf-human conflicts and plan a hunting season for when conditions are right, said Randy Johnson, the large carnivore specialist.

Adhering to a specific population number is flawed, he explained, because “it is based on the idea that you can pick the right number of wolves” — which can be not only subjective but also “biologically and politically tricky.”

Multiple tribal nations consider the wolf a spiritual brother and condemn hunting the animals at all. Nonetheless, a representative of the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe said Wednesday that the tribe is “highly supportive” of the plan and lamented that, for hundreds of years, wolves have been terrorized under “fear-based philosophies."

Melissa Smith, the founder of Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf & Wildlife, told Courthouse News that the plan is better than the previous one but still ignores what most members of the public want from a scientifically sound management plan.

Smith said the plan doesn't recognize that past threats to wolves still exist today and it defers too much to hunting lobbies. Wolf management should recognize the animals’ intrinsic value to their ecosystems, and account for whether wolves are fulfilling their ecological role on the landscape, Smith reasoned.

“It’s always about killing,” she said. “What if we just let the wolves thrive solely for their own existence without prioritizing human needs?”

Chris Vaughan, Wisconsin state director with Hunter Nation, said in an interview that Hunter Nation disapproves of the plan’s lack of a hard population goal. He preferred the previous plan’s goal of 350 wolves, a point he reiterated at the board meeting on Wednesday.

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature seem to agree: The state Senate this month passed a bill requiring the Department of Natural Resources to include a specific population goal in its wolf management plan.

Vaughan also echoed concerns from farmers’ associations and others who feel the plan fails to fairly balance the concerns of those who live in wolf country with residents of metropolitan areas like Milwaukee and Madison where wolves are not an issue. He also said the plan inadequately addresses depredation by wolves — instances of wolf-human conflict mostly involving harm to pets and livestock — which he claimed has increased along with the wolf population.

The natural resources department's statistics on confirmed or probable reports of depredation for the past five years show an average of 67 instances per year with no discernible increase annually. Records indicate the agency paid out roughly $857,000 in wolf-related damages from 2018 through 2022.

With restrictions, Wisconsin law allows dogs to be used to hunt wolves and other animals. Out of 46 confirmed depredations in 2023, 28 involved hunting dogs, department records show. Most confirmed, unconfirmed or probable depredation and harassment by wolves involves livestock.

Johnson told Courthouse News that the data shows that, year over year, depredations are not increasing. Nevertheless, the carnivore specialist noted that, though unsupported by the data, there is a perception that wolf-human conflict is widespread and growing.

Worldwide, wolves attacking humans, unprovoked, is vanishingly rare: The department says there have been no documented cases of such attacks in Wisconsin.

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Categories / Environment, Government, Regional, Science

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