Long maligned in folklore, wolves have an image problem that has hindered conservation efforts since their recovery. Just last week, the Trump administration announced that it will move forward with delisting the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law that affords legal safeguards for at risk species and their habitats.
Until 2011, congressional attempts to remove protections for wolves were blocked by the courts. That changed, however, when two Western Senators, from Montana and Idaho, slipped a provision into the Federal Spending Bill (a measure called a “rider”) that stripped wolves of federal protections. In doing so, they circumvented the courts and escaped judicial review. Since then, there have been over 350 legislative attacks that would undermine species specific laws or erode provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) entirely.
Sean Duffy, representative for Wisconsin’s 7th district, was the latest to go after wolf protections by slipping a rider into an appropriations bill that passed the House last autumn. His bill, like the ones before it, proposed removing federal protection for wolves and barred judicial review.
As a conservation enthusiast, I wanted to know more about the plight of wolves and decided to visit Duffy’s district this past winter to learn about the dynamics affecting wolf policy in the area.
My timing was perfect. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) invites members of the public (citizen scientists) to join their volunteer tracking program every winter to help gather data about wolf populations, distribution, and breeding.
There are two organizations that are listed as WDNR partners for conducting surveys – the Timber Wolf Information Network (TWIN) and the Timber Wolf Alliance. Together they help track and monitor the 900 or so wolves that inhabit Wisconsin.
But only TWIN offered an immersive workshop, combined with a mini-tracking session, where I might have been able to see a wolf. Having fantasies of chasing wolves through the woods, I was sold and soon found myself booking a trip to Wisconsin’s Sandhill Wildlife Area where TWIN was hosting its third and last workshop of the season.
The workshops, led by veteran wolf biologist Dick Theil (Wisconsin’s first wolf biologist), his brother Scott Theil, and Bob Welch, are like Wolf 101 for non-scientists. Decked out in rugged style field coats, retro trapper caps, and snow boots, the trio of instructors looked more like explorers than teachers. For the past 30 years, they have brought the public closer to wolves from their Sandhill base.
I arrived exhausted from my journey, but excited to finally be among the white pine and aspen trees for which this area is famous. The air was crisp, and the sounds of the forest immediately made me feel more connected to nature.
Entering the main building, I was met by the glass-eyed gazes of what appeared to be every native species and then some. The taxidermy made me question whether I was in the right place, but I was relieved when I heard they were all victims of accidental or natural death.
The first day was a marathon of wolf history from the ice age up until European settlement, when Westward expansion pushed wolves to the brink of extinction. My group of two dozen was captivated by giant wolf skulls, tales of necropsies, and personal stories of wolf recovery in the area.
By the second day, we were eager to get into the field. We saw lots of critter signs, but wolf sightings were nil. We did, however, see other telltale signs that they were in the area. Our group was giddy with excitement when we saw the yellow staining of raised-leg urination and even more so after seeing the droplets of blood left by a female in heat, both clear indications that wolves had passed through.
As I listened to the instructors, two opposing views constantly butted against each other – one fighting for tradition and property rights, and the other for progress and the rights of wildlife. Opponents of endangered species protections for wolves want management returned to the states. Their argument is that wolves have recovered and thus no longer need federal protections. But wolf advocates counter that it’s these very protections that have allowed the fragile populations to bounce back. Without them, wolves are slaughtered, as witnessed in states where protection have been removed.
A good case study for state management is Wisconsin between 2012 – 2014. In those two years 528 wolves were legally killed. These harvests aren’t based on science and often hurt wolf populations by breaking up packs and orphaning young. Yet these forms of management are still considered standard practice for state wildlife agencies.
Beyond highlighting unethical management practices, the workshop drove home a constant theme – wolves are not the monsters we make them out to be. A lot of our fears about wolves are based on anachronist folklore that has no place in the 21st century. For instance, far from being rapacious killers who deplete game populations, wolves actually help keep herds healthy by preying on the sick, the old, and the weak. A graph documenting wolf predation reflected this, with the ages of kills being mostly very old and very young. Also, the impact on livestock is overblown. Of Wisconsin’s 1.5 million dairy cows and beef cattle, the WDNR confirmed 24 wolf kills in 2018.
The hysteria around wolves is largely pushed by farmers and hunters who loathe predators – wolves, coyotes, bears, lions – and that’s terrible for conservation efforts. These two groups pump millions of dollars into state wildlife management through hunting and trapping licenses, and hunting related sales taxes. This has lead to a prioritization of policies that favor these two groups at the expense of non-game species.
Such favoritism flies in the face of the public trust doctrine which states that federal agencies should protect our wild spaces for the enjoyment of all, not just a select few. Also, by catering to special interest groups, state wildlife management agencies exclude a large portion of the population who enjoy wildlife for its intrinsic value in a non-consumptive form – naturalists, scientists, wildlife enthusiasts, and photographers.
Because of this disparity in viewpoints, consensus on what wolf conservation should look is rare. From our discussions, it would seem that holistic approaches to management, where the interest of multiple stakeholders is considered, might be the only way forward. Wolves are thriving where ranchers have developed non-lethal forms of deterrents, conservationists have secured legal protections, and limited predator controls are allowed. This seems to be the sweet spot for wolf recovery today.
As I left Sandhill and headed towards the interstate, I reflected on how eye-opening the workshop was. It showed a world where wolves serve as guardians of the ecosystems they inhabit and are actually more like us than what I initially believed. They are highly social, sentient animals who value family structure, are devoted to each other, nurture their young, and mourn the loss of pack members. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to visit this part of Wisconsin and to connect on some level with wolves.
I thought about their future and what that would look like without the protections that have afforded them a second chance. If the states that have delisted wolves are any indication, it’s not looking good.