Grey Wolf Delisting Raises Concerns About Wisconsin’s Management Process

Photograph credit EarthJustice

I’ve been involved in Wisconsin’s Wolf Recovery plan since the year 2000. The concern I have with the state management of its gray wolf is the legislative mandated wolf hunt. Wisconsin law, Act 169 states: if the wolf is not listed on the federal or Wisconsin endangered list, the department shall allow the hunting and trapping of wolves. A legislative mandated hunt of a species just off the ESL goes far beyond reason and usurps the Democratic process. Wolves should be returned back into the hands of the Department of Natural Resources to be managed as they were for almost 40 years allowing for public input at every level of the management process. —Rachel Tilseth

The following is from Wisconsin Public Television produce October 25, 2010. Since then, Rob Stafsholt has become a representative, and now a senator for Wisconsin’s 10th district and is pushing for a wolf hunt. He is on a mission to bypass public input and go straight to a wolf hunt. In a statement Stafsholt said: “This designation has returned management to the state. Under state statutes, the DNR is required to implement a harvest season, unless preempted by federal law. Wisconsin law establishes a wolf hunting season once federal protections are removed to begin on the first Saturday in November, and conclude on February 28th.

Yet there are so many that want science to be the deciding factor in deciding how Wisconsin’s grey wolf is managed, and not jumping to a wolf hunt.

The following is from a recent WPR article. Peter David and Sarah Wilkins, both biologists, make very sound scientific points regarding wolf management that I strongly agree with.

Peter David, wildlife biologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, said the rule is disappointing to tribes. David said Wisconsin tribes have a deep cultural connection to wolves, which play a pivotal role in a healthy ecosystem in the northern forests.

“They’re very interested in protecting wolves and gaining the maximum amount of benefits that wolves provide,” said David. “We know that was fairly different than the management goals of the state the last time wolves were de-listed.”

David said tribes are odds with state law that requires a wolf hunt when the animals aren’t under federal protection.

Conservation group Wisconsin’s Green Fire said it supports returning wolf management to states and tribes because the recovery of wolves in Wisconsin and the surrounding region meet the standards set under the Endangered Species Act. But the group is urging the DNR to update its 1999 wolf management plan, according to Sarah Wilkins, science director with Wisconsin’s Green Fire.

“The 1999 plan, which is the one that’s in place right now is outdated, and it’s not using the most current and up-to-date information around wolf biology and wolf science,” said Wilkins.

The agency’s 1999 wolf management plan set a goal of 350 wolves for the state, but that figure was based on a projected population of 500 wolves across Wisconsin.

The conservation group also urged the agency to work with a science and technical advisory committee along with a committee of diverse stakeholders in developing a plan, as well as Wisconsin tribes.

“We shouldn’t be moving forward and jumping into a hunt right now until we have that conservation plan in place,” said Wilkins.

If the hunt is reinstated, the group said the agency should maintain the wolf population within numbers seen over the last several years in the range of 866 to 1,034 wolves. Wilkins said they’re also recommending changes to state law that would ensure decisions regarding wolf management and the wolf hunt would reside with the agency.

The following is from Lindsey Botts, writer for this blog and submitted excellent points in a recent Op Ed that appeared in The Wisconsin State Journal,

“Wolves are doing better in Wisconsin but still face threats”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently reported a 13% increase in the number of wolves in the state over last year, bringing the estimated total to just over 1,000.

The annual count, from April 2019 to April 2020, was primarily conducted over the winter when tracking was easier because of snow. But summer howl surveys, territory mapping, radio collars and observation reports also are used to estimate populations.

New this year is a probability average the DNR calculates based on repeated detections, which include wolf sightings, markings of wolves such as scat and paw prints, and photos. Out of 313 wolf observations by staff and volunteers, 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 to come up with 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 such as Idaho and Montana where this model is used, large estimates and fuzzy data are used to set aggressive hunting quotas that wipe out entire packs.

The DNR will use these numbers to set its own hunting limits once federal protections are removed. And anti-wolf legislators will use them to speed delisting from the federal Endangered Species Act, turning wolf management over to the states.

In fact, U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Minocqua, is already doing just that. In theory, state management is good. But in practice, it can be disastrous. In the three winters that wolves were delisted in Wisconsin from 2012 to 2014, more than 600 wolves were killed. In short, delisting is only appropriate if the state can resist the push to kill half its population.

Sadly, state management and hunting are so entangled in Wisconsin that our state mandates a wolf hunt once federal protections are removed.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, livestock producers should be able to protect their property by killing animals that threaten their cattle, but aimless killing is cruel and ineffective as a management tool.

Research by Adrian Treves, a professor of Environmental Studies at UW-Madison and founder of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab, has highlighted that indiscriminate killing can actually be counterintuitive. By killing alpha and beta wolves that are experienced hunters, young wolves are left to fend for themselves, which often means they turn to easy prey such as livestock.

And that’s when livestock producers get scared. But statistically, cattle are more likely to die from the weather and disease than from a wolf attack. More than 3 million cattle are in Wisconsin, and less than 0.05% die because of wolves.

While counting wolves is key to shaping policy and understanding wolf dynamics, the data is often used in nefarious ways to undermine wolf recovery under the guise of management, a term that’s hard to decouple from hunting and trapping.

Yet we don’t need to kill wolves for any biological reasons. Wolves don’t attack people in Wisconsin, and controlled hunts serve no purpose other than to satisfy human bloodlust. Many studies, including one by Arian Wallach from Charles Darwin University, have shown that predators are capable of self-regulation. Habitat, available food and the environment all factor into population density.

Back in the ‘90s, biologists thought we’d never have more than a few hundred wolves in the state, which is why the current population goal is 350. But new data suggests this was woefully underestimated. Based on information from last year’s wolf count, we know the wolf population has stabilized and that the natural population is probably closer to what we have now, around 1,000.

The increase in wolves is worth celebrating for sure, but it’s what we do with those numbers that will really determine if wolf recovery is a success. If the numbers are used to justify killing lots of wolves, this isn’t a win, it’s a failure.

Once federal protections are removed, which will likely happen before the end of the year, the state will have to develop a new wolf plan. Wisconsinites need to do two things to make sure the latest wolf count lives up to the conservation success it’s touted as being.

First, we should push the DNR to include updated data in the new wolf management plan. This means contacting the DNR and asking them to update the population goal to reflect the current numbers. Second, we must demand that state legislators use accurate science when making laws that concern wildlife. This means reaching out to your local representatives and urging them to end the mandatory wolf hunt.

Delisting is appropriate when populations are healthy. Killing wolves based on numbers is not. It’s time we demand that the DNR and our state legislators understand that.

2 Replies to “Grey Wolf Delisting Raises Concerns About Wisconsin’s Management Process”

  1. People seem to be either black or white when it comes to wolves. Presenting accurate data in regard to the number of cattle depredations vs other means of cattle death, such as cougar predation, cattle illness, cows dying during birth, environmental causes, etc need to be listed and compared against wolf predation. I don’t know Wisconsin’s stance from a hunter’s perspective, so they think wolves are taking away their ability to compete for deer? It seems to me that deer are plentiful in Wisconsin and deer relates accidents and loss of human life from run ins with deer need to be once again brought up. I agree that 1,000 deer seems to be a healthy sustainable wolf population in Wisconsin.

    1. A compromise is possible but it will take allowing the Democratic process to prevail. In my 20 years of experience in wolf Recovery I’ve observed extremists from both sides are the loudest voices with the least respect for the Democratic process. It’s the voices of reason that get drowned out.

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