Wisconsin wildlife officials unanimously approved the new wolf management plan on October 25, 2023, which doesn’t include a specific population goal. The plan was approved despite the opposition from hunters and farmers who want to cap the number of wolves roaming the state.
In backing the plan, Department of Natural Resources policy board members praised it as a scientifically sound compromise that could give federal officials confidence that Wisconsin would manage its wolf population responsibly if the federal government removes protections for the species.
“Impressive work,” board member Todd Ambs told DNR large carnivore specialist Randy Johnson, who spent months developing and revising the plan in an attempt to please hunters, farmers and conservationists. “Amazing what you’ve been going through. … Congratulations on still being upright when you got here.”
Wolf management has become controversial in conservative hunting organizations as recovery in Wisconsin continues.
Farmers in northern Wisconsin complain that wolves are preying on their livestock. Yet the numbers show otherwise. The population of gray wolves in Wisconsin was estimated at 1,007 last winter, a year-over-year increase of 4%, according to the Department of Natural Resources. The number of wolf packs decreased slightly, from 288 in 2021-22 to 283 in 2022-23. The number of Wisconsin farms with confirmed wolf conflicts also declined.
Amy Mueller said the latest DNR wolf population estimate showed a slight statewide wolf population increase, and yet our depredations are at a 15-year low, with only 18 farms total impacted. We should focus on the number of farm conflicts and not the state-wide population.
As wolves were about to be delisted, Republican legislators 2012 passed a law requiring the DNR to hold an annual wolf hunting season. Hunters and farmers have pointed to the 350-wolf limit as justification for setting high kill quotas. In February 2021, a conservative advocacy group filed and won a lawsuit forcing the DNR to hold a hunt during the wolf’s breeding season, and hunters went over the quota in three days, causing a black eye on Wisconsin hunters.
A federal judge last year placed gray wolves in the lower 48 states back on the endangered species list, making hunting illegal and limiting farmers to nonlethal control methods, such as fencing in livestock or using guard dogs. The DNR has been working on an updated wolf management plan in case wolves are removed from the list and hunting resumes.
The new plan recommends a statewide population of about 1,000 animals but doesn’t set a hard limit on the population. Instead, the plan recommends allowing the population to grow or decline at certain numerical thresholds. This adaptive management plan, the DNR officials insist, creates flexibility in dealing with local packs, allowing for more hunting pressure in areas overpopulated with wolves.
The proposal has met with sharp criticism from farmers and hunters who want a specific statewide population goal. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the most prominent farmers association in the state, has called for maintaining the 350-wolf cap. Republican lawmakers are advancing a bill that would force the DNR to insert a specific number in the plan. More than likely, the governor will veto this legislation.
Republicans who control the state Senate on Oct. 17 refused to confirm four members of the DNR board who said they supported the new management plan, removing them from the board. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers named four replacements the same day.
The board spent more than three-and-a-hours before the vote listening to public comments on the plan from both sides.
Alex Mardosky, associate director of the Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, called the plan “exceptional.” He praised the DNR for moving toward a flexible management approach, calling a hard population goal “a really blunt instrument.” He recommended the DNR set a zero quota if hunting resumes.
Ed Harvey of the Conservation Congress, a group of influential sportsmen who advise the DNR, said the organization doesn’t think the plan should keep the 350-wolf goal. He complained that the department hasn’t given enough weight to the opinions of people who live among wolves.
Patrick Quaintance of Bayfield said he’s seen the remains of calves killed by wolves on farms around his property and has taken photos of wolves in broad daylight. “I don’t feel safe walking my dog or turning my dog loose on my property,” he said. “Let’s keep this in perspective. People are having problems with wolves.” Quaintance is a proponent of capping the population at 350 and uses dogs to hunt bears.
There has never been a documented wolf attack on a human in Wisconsin, according to the DNR. Wolves typically prey on old, young, sick or otherwise weakened animals.
Fred Clark, executive director of the conservation group Wisconsin’s Green Fire, said his group supports the plan and that the 350-wolf goal in 1999 means nothing because scientists have had 24 years to learn more about wolves. He said the plan will help persuade federal wildlife officials that they can hand wolf management back to the states in good conscience.
“The feds are paying attention,” Johnson, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, told the board. “(They’re) looking for a plan that lays out our intentions. It’s really important to put our best foot forward as a state so when that delisting comes we can maintain it long-term.”
I asked Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, the following question about a wolf management plan.
It’s really important that any wolf management plan should consider not wolves as a species but wolves as individuals, sentient beings. There should be consideration of the effect on pack members when individuals are killed. Each wolf should be treated with respect for his or her individuality and the role he or she plays in the social life of the pack. Any plan should take into consideration the needs of the wolves for protection from harassment, and if it’s deemed necessary to reduce their numbers, this should be done in the most humane way possible. But here, for me personally, the very idea of managing wild animals is offensive. Of course, it may be deemed necessary in some instances.