By Adrian Wydeven
As often is the case with ecological issues, simple answers or solutions are often inadequate or incorrect.
Everyone likes a good mystery, especially one where an unlikely candidate is revealed as the culprit. This “Ah ha!” moment is a staple of the genre and most of us can remember the satisfaction of discovering the one responsible. Sherlock Holmes, Colombo and Nancy Drew were the masters of the reveal.
Such a mystery may be playing out in Wisconsin right now with record high numbers of wolf depredations on hunting hounds. The initial suspect: record high wolf numbers. The initial conclusion: Increased advocacy for a hunting season on wolves believing that fewer wolves would mean fewer hounds being attacked by wolves.
However, just like the classic mysteries, there is more to this story.
No one disputes that the summer and early fall of 2016 saw record depredations by wolves on hounds in Wisconsin. A total of 37 hounds have been killed since July 1 — the beginning of the bear training period and hunting season. Plus, three other hounds were killed earlier in the year, for a total of 40 hounds killed in 2016.
Some people attribute the high number of hounds killed to the current record high population of wolves (866 wolves in late winter 2016) and the lack of wolf hunting season over the last two years. Seems like a logical conclusion, but things are often not as simple as they first appear.
Do wolf numbers correlate with wolves killing hounds? The evidence suggests this might not necessarily be the case. In 2012, only seven dogs were killed and yet there were nearly as many wolves in 2012 as there were in 2016 (815 wolves in late winter 2012).
In other words, the wolf populations in 2012 and 2016 were similar, yet these two years represent the highest and the lowest numbers of hounds killed by wolves in the last 13 years. Obviously, there is more to this story than just more wolves killing more hounds.
What else influences the interactions between wolves and hound dogs? Bear hunting culture and policy are two other important factors that could influence the number of hounds killed by wolves.
Could a change in bear hunting policy be a factor? Wisconsin is a major destination for bear hunting and training — with some of the highest bear densities and bear harvest success rates in the nation.
Prior to July 2015, people putting out bait and handling hounds used to train on bears were required to buy a Class B Bear Permit. The permit cost residents $14 and nonresidents $110. The permit and fees were eliminated in 2015 and now anyone can freely bait for bears, and train their dogs on bears. This may have increased baiting and training of dogs on bears in Wisconsin, putting more bear hunters and hounds in the hunt, especially from out-of-state residents with the license fee no longer a barrier.
Sometimes changes in regulations cause unintended consequences. The elimination of the Class B Bear Permit, which has led to more hunters baiting and training hounds on the landscape, plus the extensive baiting period in Wisconsin — about 145 days in Wisconsin vs. a maximum of 31 days in other states — may explain the recent spike in wolf kill on hounds.
I cannot state that the removal of Class B licenses is the only reason wolves are killing more hounds. More sleuthing may be required. Yet as often is the case with ecological issues, simple answers or solutions are often inadequate or incorrect.
The “Ah-ha!” moment may be more elusive in cases involving complex interactions between social and ecological factors. In the case of hounds and wolves, the initial culprit — the record high wolf population or lack of wolf hunting season — do not adequately explain the record numbers of wolf attacks on hounds. Like any good detective, it is important to look closely at all of the potential culprits before drawing conclusions.
Adrian Wydeven is a former wolf biologist at the Department of Natural Resources and the coordinator of the Timber Wolf Alliance at Northland College.