Will the legal battle over wolves ever end? The on-again, off-again plan to manage gray wolves has taken more twists and turns than the curvy section of Highway 42 near Northport.
Wolves have been delisted and relisted as federally endangered species five times during this century alone, and none of them due to declining populations. It’s all political theater, and the only winners are lawyers litigating the cases and animal-activist groups that use the gray wolf as a poster child for fundraising efforts.
Wisconsin’s wolf population has met state delisting goals for two decades and has surpassed the management goal of 350 at least since 2004, when the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) guesstimated that there was a minimum of 373 wolves in the state.
Last winter, the agency said there were most likely nearly 1,200, and that was before pups were born in the spring. The average wolf litter is four to six pups, and there were at least 256 packs in the state.
What’s most frustrating from this writer’s standpoint is how unprepared the DNR was in being ready to manage wolves again after the last three years of management from 2012 to 2014.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been readying the data for years to show that wolves have indeed recovered and that states are prepared with management plans to make sure numbers don’t drop too low. The feds made it known in late 2019 that they would be delisting wolves again, and as recently as last summer, they said delisting was imminent.
Yet when it came in early November, the DNR never twitched. The wolf advisory committee was not called even to a virtual meeting. And when the 60-day notice was complete and wolves were officially delisted in early January, the DNR only said that it was planning to hold a hunt in the fall.
Even after a near-record year of wolves killing and harassing dogs and livestock. Even after its most valuable constituents in terms of money through license fees and excise-tax kickbacks – hunters and businesses – pleaded for immediate relief from growing wolf numbers.
Responding to complaints, the state Natural Resources Board (NRB) stepped in. Because of possible legal issues with tribes, the NRB narrowly voted to not force the DNR to have a hunt yet this winter.
Enter a lawsuit filed by a sporting group and a court order last week requiring the DNR to establish a harvest season yet this month. But that may not be the end of it. At the time of this writing, the Evers administration was asking an appeals court to stop the season, even as the DNR has issued a call for applications.
That’s another mess. Applications at $10 each – earmarked to pay for losses to livestock owners, hunters and pet owners for livestock and dogs killed by wolves – were to run five full days.
The drawing for 4,000 permits (with a wolf quota of 200 and the season shut down once reached) would then take place and the results provided Monday, Feb. 22 – wasting an entire weekend that could have seen trappers and hunters afield.
Wolves Are Resilient
Trappers and hunters killed 528 wolves during the three harvest seasons from 2012 to 2014. Another 138 were killed on depredation permits near farms by USDA Wildlife Services trappers, and four were shot using landowner depredation permits. Dozens more were struck and killed by vehicles each year, and an unknown number of others died, including from illegal kills, wolves killing other wolves, and natural causes, including disease and starvation.
Despite all of that, the winter population barely dipped. The wolf count dropped by only 69 animals between 2012 and 2015, from a minimum estimate of 815 outside of tribal lands to 746. During the five years since, the count has grown by more than 400 animals.
Wildlife biologist Dave Ruid, the USDA Wildlife Service’s assistant district supervisor, said frozen soil and snow on the Bayfield Peninsula have hampered efforts to catch depredating wolves since late January, when the DNR and the federal agency finally began an effort to try to reduce wolf depredation near two farms with chronic issues.
“Implementing wolf trapping in the middle of winter is difficult,” Ruid said. “Blowing snow can render a set inoperable within hours.”
No wolves were taken through Feb. 10, and Ruid said it’s hard to say when the wolf pack – which typically roams a 50- to 60-square-mile area – might be back. He said they may be busy tackling their favorite food: white-tailed deer.
“Generally speaking, about 90% of the livestock conflicts happen between April and November,” Ruid said. “That’s when we have success trapping wolves. Sets are made in the thawed soil and can remain operable for weeks at a time.”
Through early February, wolves had killed a horse, beef calf and pet dog; wounded a dog, calf and cow; and harassed 42 animals in four northern Wisconsin counties.
Ruid said when the DNR was allowed some form of lethal control between 2003 and 2009, and again between 2012 and 2014, trappers and hunters killed less than 5% of the estimated wolf population.
“That has had no effect on the gray wolf recovery in Wisconsin,” he said.
Some Canadian provinces use much more aggressive reduction strategies, including aerial shooting, snares and poisoning. Although they have had some success in reducing wolf predation on big game animals, the practices are extremely controversial and costly. In addition, once you let off the gas pedal, wolf numbers rapidly increase.
“Wolves are resilient,” Ruid said.