Last week, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported a 13% increase in the number of wolves in the state over the last year, bringing the estimated total to just over 1000.
The annual count, from April 2019 to April 2020, is primarily conducted over the winter when tracking is easier because of snow. However, summer howl surveys, observation reports, territory mapping, and telemetry techniques are also used to estimate populations.
This year, the DNR added a patch occupancy modelling technique to its methods for counting wolves. This strategy uses repeated detections to come up with a probable average. The signs include actual wolf sightings, markings of wolves like scat and paw prints, and photos.
Data is mostly gathered by DNR staff and volunteers. For decades, the DNR has partnered with the Timber Wolf Alliance and the Timber Wolf Information Network to include the public in wolf count surveys. In addition, outdoor enthusiasts also submit their findings to the DNR.
Out of 313 wolf observations, about a third were verified. And out of 328 photo sequences, a little more than half were verified. The DNR includes both verified and probable data sets to come up with its numbers. The total results in an average.
What the new technique lacks in preciseness it makes up for in ease and affordability. That may be great for the DNR but it might not play out well for wolves.
In states where this model is currently used like Idaho and Montana, large estimates are used to set aggressive hunting quotas that wipe out entire packs. The DNR will use these numbers to justify delisting, thus turning wolf management over to the states.
Rep. Tom Tiffany from Minocqua County is already doing just that. In theory, state management is good, but in practice it can be disastrous. In the three years that wolves were delisted in Wisconsin over 500 wolves were killed. In short, delisting is only appropriate if the state can resist the push to kill half its population.
Alas, state management and hunting have sadly been conflated to be almost symbolic of each other. They’re so entangled that Wisconsin is the only state the mandates a wolf hunt once federal protections are removed.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, ranchers should be able to protect their property by killing individuals that threaten their livestock, but killing for population management is cruel and ineffective.
In fact, research by Adrian Treves has highlighted that indiscriminate killing can actually be counterintuitive. By killing experienced hunters like alphas, you leave young and inexperienced wolves to fend for themselves, which often means they turn to easy prey like livestock.
While knowing how many wolves are on the landscape is key to shaping policy and understanding wolf dynamics, the data is often used in nefarious ways to undermined wolf recovery under the guise of management, a term that’s hard to decouple from killing.
However, there is no biological reason that we need to hunt wolves. It serves no purpose other than to satisfy human bloodlust. Numerous studies, including one by Arian Wallach from Charles Darwin University, have shown that predators are capable of self-regulation. Things like habitat, available food, and environment all factor into population density.
The increase in wolves is worth celebrating for sure, but it’s what we do with those numbers that will really determine whether or not wolf recovery has been a success. If the numbers are used to justify killing lots of wolves, this isn’t a win, it’s a failure.
Delisting is appropriate when populations are healthy. Killing wolves based on a number count is not.
When federal protections are removed, hopefully the Wisconsin DNR will have a wolf recovery plan that reflects that.