Senators from Wisconsin and Wyoming have introduced bipartisan legislation which would return gray wolf management to the states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. It also reaffirms the current delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming. This bill follows a recent decision from a federal court in California which returned the gray wolf to federal protection in much of the lower-48 states.
Adrian Wydeven, a retired Wisconsin DNR biologist, is not surprised by the recent action. “When wolves were relisted last month, I [believed] legislative delisting would likely be attempted in the Great Lakes region as it had occurred in the Northern Rockies,” Wydeven said. Unlike federal agencies, Congress can limit the authority of courts to review its delisting action – as is the case with the current bill.
This legislative effort comes as the Wisconsin DNR is currently working to finalize a new Wolf Management Plan. The last state wolf management plan was approved in 1999, with some slight modifications added in 2007. Wisconsin abandoned work to rewrite the plan in 2015. This bill also follows the February 2021 wolf hunt during which 218 wolves were killed, 83% more than the state quota allowed. Per Wisconsin law, anytime the gray wolf is not under federal or state protection, the state is mandated to hold a wolf hunt.
Legislative delisting is not new. In 2011, Congress required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reinstate the decision to delist wolves in the Northern Rockies, except for Wyoming. In 2012, the agency did delist wolves in Wyoming; however, this rule was vacated by a federal district court in 2014 and later reinstated by a federal appeals court in 2017. Prior to the reinstatement, Wyoming’s congressional delegation had sought to legislatively require delisting of wolves in the state. The newly introduced legislation, co-sponsored by both Wyoming Senators, does not allow for judicial review of the decision to delist the animal in Wyoming. In 2018, then-Congressman Sean Duffy (R-WI) sponsored the Manage Our Wolves Act which sought to remove federal protections for gray wolves in the lower-48 states. The legislation passed the House of Representatives but was not taken up in the Senate.
How the recent bill’s introduction may be leveraged for political purposes remains an open question. While bipartisan, it comes just months ahead of the 2022 midterm election in which Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) is the only co-sponsor on the ballot. His challenger will be determined in the August 2022 primary.
Photo taken in Northern Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th Century
Admittedly, I am new to Wisconsin’s wolf management plan process so to write this I set out to do in-depth research and reporting. After over twenty-four hours of watching the Wolf Management Plan Committee (WMPC) meetings, more than ten hours of reading the past plan, its update and articles, and several more hours discussing the future of wolves in Wisconsin, I certainly expected to have a clear sense of what will happen next. The truth is, I learned a lot and realized how little I could predict.
As has been reported in this publication (and elsewhere), wolves were eliminated from Wisconsin and much of the lower-48 by the mid-20th century. Gray wolf populations continued in Minnesota and on Isle Royale (Michigan). These holdouts to extirpation began extending their territory and reemerged in Wisconsin by the mid-1970s. In 1989, the state began work on a state recovery plan with the the goal of upgrading the status of the wolf from endangered to threatened. By 1999, the year of the first statewide Wolf Management Plan, Wisconsin had a population of more than 190 wolves and the state set out to manage the wolf to eventually delist the species from state and federal protection all together. Wisconsin updated the 1999 plan in 2007. The state attempted to draft a new plan between 2013 and 2015, but did not finish the job. The 1999 plan listed fourteen specific areas of wolf management strategies: 1. Wolf management zones, 2. Population monitoring and management, 3. Wolf health monitoring, 4. Habitat management, 5. Wolf depredation management, 6. Wolf education programs, 7. Law enforcement, 8. Inter-Agency cooperation and coordination, 9. Program guidance and oversight, 10. Volunteer programs, 11. Wolf research needs, 12. Wolf-Dog hybrids and captive wolves, 13. Wolf specimen management, and 14. Ecotourism.
Prior to the 2013-2015 attempt to revisit the Wolf Management Plan, the state often engaged with a state scientific committee. However, the 2021-2022 plan is the first significant work toward a new plan since efforts were abandoned in 2015. When I learned this, I knew an update to the 1999 Wolf Management Plan would be extremely difficult, and all of this is occurring in the shadow of the February 2021 wolf hunt and the return of the wolf to federal protection in February 2022.
Before I sat down to watch the four meetings of the WPMC, I asked myself, what has changed between 1999 and 2022? The answer was not hard to find – the wolf population. What was a number under 200 in 1999 is now a population of more than 1,000 animals in the state. Gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest also experienced increases in population sizes. In my opinion, the gray wolf recovery is a conservation success story but now the question facing Wisconsin is how to successfully coexist with a more stable population of apex predators?
The WMPC Process
To help answer this question, the DNR assembled the WMPC, a diverse group of stakeholders and Tribal representatives to meet four times between July and October 2021. The DNR tasked this group with providing input for the latest installment of the Wolf Management Plan.
The meetings of the WMPC were facilitated by a third party, nongovernmental, professional with the help of the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, Randy Johnson. I took the hiring of an outside facilitator to be both prudent, given the diverse perspectives of the WMPC members, and also a signal of the value of public input. Throughout the course of four meetings (including work prior to each meeting directed by the faciltator) the members of the WMPC assembled 138 individual pieces of input for the DNR. The input was then organized by the facilitator and the DNR, with the consent of the WMPC members, into groups of related input, known as nutshells.
There was no expectation that the group would reach a consensus on any recommendation, though I was intrigued by the level of general support for a number of key issues, including “[m]aking sure wolves remain in Wisconsin” (input 112). There was broad support for protecting livestock from wolf depredation and it will be interesting to see how the DNR handles the issue of payments for livestock loss. Unsurprisingly, no consensus was reached regarding wolf hunting, but the group seemed to agree, generally, that it would be important to develop strategies for effective coexistence between wolves and humans.
“There was no expectation that the group would reach a consensus on any recommendation, though I was intrigued by the level of general support for a number of key issues, including “[m]aking sure wolves remain in Wisconsin” (input 112).”
Two significant areas which received some of the most attention and diverse perspectives were (1) the wolf count, and (2) what should the population objective be for wolves in Wisconsin.
Gray Wolf in Jackson County. Credit: Snapshot Wisconsin
The Wolf Count
Several stakeholder groups indicated a distrust of the overall wolf count in Wisconsin, arguing the number wolves in the state is higher than the DNR indicates. In my opinion, this is a nuanced argument. To some, more wolves means less hunting opportunities for humans. Reduced opportunities could mean fewer sales of hunting licenses – which could decrease funding for the DNR and the hunting economy – a staple of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. In practice, however, 2020 saw a 12% increase in deer hunters compared to 2019 while 2021 showed a slight decrease from the 2020 numbers (per the 9- day gun hunt tallies).
For over forty years, the DNR used territory mapping to establish a minimum count of wolves in the state. This method employed ground tracking, aerial observation and the location of collared wolves to establish a map of pack territory and estimate pack size. The combined data established the minimum population of wolves in the state. This method worked well when the wolf population was smaller; however, as the number of wolves grew, the DNR needed a new way to estimate the number of animals. Beginning in 2018, the agency incorporated scaled occupancy modeling alongside territory mapping. The DNR compared the data gathered from the two methods and determined that the minimum count data using territory mapping was within the scaled occupancy model population. Per the DNR, occupancy modeling is less subjective and accounts for wolves that are present in an area but undetected. Due to the confidence in occupancy modeling, the DNR will no longer conduct a minimum count.
What should the population be?
What the wolf population should be in Wisconsin was an area of disagreement amongst the stakeholders. One camp perferred a defined number – invariably, the goal of 350 wolves as established in 1999. Other groups preferred to not define a specific number but achieve a wolf population that was healthy and sustainable through outcome based objectives. This method only establishes a minimum threshold below which the wolf population should not fall. Should the DNR move in this direction, it will be interesting to see which objectives are selected for consideration and why.
“Our job is to sharpen our tools and make them cut the right way… [T]he sole measure of our success is the effect which they have on the forest.” - Aldo Leopold
Overall the WMPC process was fascinating to witness and I am grateful for the work of each member. The importance of public input and citizen involvement in the decision-making that impacts our wild spaces and wildlife was on full display. The DNR, the facilitator, and the members of the WMPC spent many hours debating and engaging in critically important questions of wolf sustainability and ecological health. Given the goal was to provide input to the DNR, I believe the agency is the recipient of diverse views that represent many of the constituencies in the state. How the DNR uses this input will be something that we continue to cover here.
WORT Radio‘ Access Hour Presents:
Rachel Tilseth And Wolves Of Wisconsin
Mon April 4 @ 7:00 Pm–8:00 Pm
Rachel Tilseth returns with special guests Adrian Wydeven and Peter David for another informative discussion regarding the new WDNR 2022 Wolf Management Plan that will be presented to the public for review. Wort Radio Access Hour listeners are encouraged to call in with concerns or questions.http://www.wortfm.org
Gray wolves in much of the lower 48 have regained federal protection following a ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Photo Credit: John E. Marriott
In the final months of the Trump administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a rule that delisted the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act. Gray wolves were also previously delisted through the Bush (2007), and Obama Administrations (2009, 2012). The 2020 delisting was hailed by the then-Administration as a success story and defended in Federal Court by the Biden Administration. As a result of the 2020 effort, the gray wolf returned to state and tribal management throughout the U.S. after over 40 years of federal protection.
Gray wolf recovery “depends on the cooperation of wildlife managers at the state, tribal and federal levels, and a reliance on the best available science to guide management decisions.” – Secretary Haaland, Department of the Interior
On February 10, 2022, Judge Jeffrey White of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued an ruling which nullified the delisting of the gray wolf and restored federal protection for the animal in much of the U.S. Gray wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming were previously delisted and not the subject of the Judge’s opinion. Similarly, Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico were never delisted and never lost federal protection. However, as ordered by Judge White, a George W. Bush appointee, management of gray wolves in the lower 48 outside of the Northern Rockies will once again be in the hands of the Federal Government. The ruling comes days after Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wrote of the successes of gray wolf conservation and that their recovery “depends on the cooperation of wildlife managers at the state, tribal and federal levels, and a reliance on the best available science to guide management decisions.”
The 2020 delisting of the gray wolf was heralded by some and scorned by others. It was this rule that began a legal challenge that ultimately resulted in the February 2021 wolf hunt in Wisconsin – a hunt that garnered headlines for the speed at which the hunting quota was achieved and surpassed. A Dane County Wisconsin judge later blocked a Fall 2021 wolf hunt holding that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) must first propose a rule for wolf hunting that would need to be approved by the legislature. With Judge White’s federal order, Wisconsin’s state managed wolf hunt is foreclosed, for the moment.
Whether the Biden Administration will appeal Judge White’s order remains an open question as is Wisconsin’s update to the state’s Wolf Management Plan. The state’s current plan was developed in 1999 and updated in 2007. However, the DNR had been working toward a new update to the plan in 2022.
“I hope the DNR will move forward…and clarify what the management goals for the state ought to be.” – Adrian Wydeven, retired DNR Wolf Biologist
Rachel Tilseth, founder of Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin, believes there is still work to do. The gray wolf “may be protected again (blessing) but nothing’s changed. Still have the same fight between pro and anti-wolf organizations with no compromise. The work must continue to write a comprehensive wolf management plan that takes into account all stakeholders,” Tilseth writes.
Adrian Wydeven, a retired Wisconsin DNR wolf biologist, hopes that Wisconsin will complete the wolf management plan update. “I hope the DNR will move forward…and clarify what the management goals for the state ought to be,” Wydeven said. He also expressed hope “to see states manage wolves [once again] but to do so more responsibly and without politics.”
Whether and when the states outside of the Northern Rockies will be responsible for the management of wolves is likely the subject of additional litigation and rulemaking. For now, the gray wolf in much of the lower 48 is under federal management and protection.
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (NY) was famous for saying that “everyone is entitled to [their] own opinion, but not [their] own facts.” These words are as important today as they were the first time the Senator uttered them.
Americans’ trust in major institutions is declining. Gallup released findings showing that trust in the media was at its second lowest point since the analytics company began yearly polling around this issue. The Pew Research Center published a video that paralleled the Gallup data but added that the general distrust of media is tempered by trust in particular news sources – highlighting the importance of personal connection to positive attitudes towards news outlets.
In the America of today everything is politicized. From masks and vaccines to wolves on the landscape – it is all too common for various sides to take zero sum positions. Questioning the integrity of others and undermining trust and confidence in objective science-based decision-making is far too common in the U.S. and acts to divide us into separate groups where we tend to favor those that think like we do. As Mike Brooks, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today:
“If we can easily become judgmental and hateful of outgroup members based on random, fabricated, and trivial distinctions, just imagine how strong such feelings can be when they are based on more profound or emotionally-laden distinctions…
A 2021 article published in FACETS, a multidisciplinary open access science journal, highlights how misinformation and polarization harm conservation efforts. The authors write:
…[H]unting, animal welfare and conservation organizations may not share the same ethical, instrumental or utilitarian values toward wildlife, yet all of these groups advocate for better conservation outcomes for wildlife…[w]hen these groups are pitted against one another over a subset of values (e.g., consumptive use of wildlife; evidence vs. anecdote; science vs. emotion), it generates conflict and weakens their collective ability to affect change on commonly shared values (e.g., the persistence of wildlife populations)…
There is, of course, a different path but it requires that we, collectively and apolitically, expect the fair and objective dissemination of facts from those that we entrust with our attention. Spin and opposition research may be fair chase in politics but it should not be so on issues of wild spaces and wildlife.
Rachel Tilseth, the founder of Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin, has written about the value of empathy. I echo what she has written and add my personal view that empathy for those that disagree is a virtue. Rather than assemble a dossier of cherry-picked facts let us build a table together and construct seats for those with diverse opinions. Let us break bread, enjoy coffee, share in the pleasantries of life – and yes, have open, honest, and real discussions about our planet and our place within it. I am not perfect but I am committed to this task. I am passionate about gray wolves and their place within our ecosystem and I believe in the science that I have read. However, I have not read all of the science there is to consume – but I am committed to growing and learning. My worldview may be different from that of others but I invite a respectful and empathetic conversation.
“[H]unting, animal welfare and conservation organizations may not share the same ethical, instrumental or utilitarian values toward wildlife, yet all of these groups advocate for better conservation outcomes for wildlife”
Too often it seems that those with influence yield it without regard to the long-game or with the idea that differing groups may actually have shared goals. No side is immune from this and we can all point to examples of irresponsible advocacy or politicking that, objectively, should not have been shared. Of course, there are exceptions, but I have to believe – perhaps I want to believe – that our shared goals can be a uniting force. A pithy soundbite may be great for clicks but it is likely not productive. As it relates to the gray wolf, questions of recovery goals, recovery range, management and environmental impact are too important to be debated in 280 characters or less, through a narrow-minded video or a one-sided podcast interview.
The truth matters and if we care about our wild spaces and wildlife we will not settle for the ping pong match of misinformation and polarization that is all too accepted today. It is easy to source opinions that we agree with but let us pledge to engage with those with whom we disagree and see what common ground we can forge.
“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach”
– W.E.B. Dubois
A walk in the woods is therapeutic, doing so with a child adds inspiration. I have been fortunate that my wife and I have enjoyed a lot of time in the woods with our daughter – long before she could walk. Her earliest naps were in the fresh air and included long slumbers in a hiking backpack chair. Whether it is looking for butterflies, snakes, raptors or insects, a simple stroll off the concrete immediately turns into an adventure with real and make-believe characters.
Being outside with a child has taught me to be more mindful – to focus on the journey not the destination. A one mile out-and-back hike might take more than the short time I had budgeted but leaves us with many hours of opportunity to discuss what we saw and how it behaved. As our daughter has grown, we have become more intentional about exposing her to new environments beyond the local hiking trails. During a recent trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee side), our three year old taught us to look beyond what we saw and ask “why aren’t we seeing more?”
Photo taken by the author near Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Our trip began on a crisp weekday morning a week before Thanksgiving celebrations here in the U.S. We exited our rented cabin and traveled to the closest Visitor Center. We hoped to meet a park ranger – who our daughter reveres. Due to COVID, we had to wait a short while to enter the Visitor Center but we were able to gather some hiking maps and checked trail conditions. We were ready to begin our day exploring the park. We did not have anything big planned beyond some short hikes, nature viewing and a picnic lunch.
On our way back to our car we were greeted by a park volunteer and our daughter immediately engaged in conversation. She explained that we were on the lookout for the park’s wildlife – bears, elk, snakes, birds and wolves. Wolves? Yes, our daughter equates the presence of elk with wolves due to having spent a year living in the Northern Rockies. The volunteer politely explained that wolves no longer lived in the park but that there were plenty of other animals to see, if we were lucky.
I noted an immediate change in our child. She went from exuberant to pensive – even sad. Why were there no wolves in the park? Where did they go? Were they coming back? She did not hesitate to ask these questions to the volunteer who responded that “all of the wolves had been hunted” and there were no longer any wolves inside the park. The question “why?” from a toddler is both an expression of incredulity and an invitation to join in a never ending conversation. In this case, our daughter could not understand why humans had extirpated wolves from a place that seemed perfect for them to live.
Hoping to put that sadness behind us we went on a hike. We did not see a bear or a raptor but we did continue our conversation about the wolves. Our daughter asked me again why people had hunted all of the wolves? Why would we make them go away? I tried to explain that man has not always coexisted with nature in a peaceful manner. We often do not understand the balance that nature requires. As we walked and talked the conversation grew, our daughter’s frustration heightened and the question “why?” kept arising. As we turned around to walk back to the trailhead we saw a pickup truck driving on the trail – it was a park ranger.
…our three year old taught us to look beyond what we saw and ask “why aren’t we seeing more?”
The ranger stopped and asked how we were doing. My daughter responded, “why are you driving a truck on this trail?” The ranger smiled and answered, “ because I work here.” Seeing an opportunity to learn more about the disappearance of wolves our daughter did not hesitate to ask “ok, then why did you let all of the wolves get hunted?” The ranger was wide-eyed. Frankly, I would have been too. What was intended to be a genuinely kind interaction with the public turned into an interrogation by a three year old. The ranger politely answered that wolves left many decades ago then gave us another smile and went on her way. My daughter was not satisfied but she understood. She looked at me and said “Papa, I am going to save the wolves, I am going to bring them back.” I asked how she planned to do that. She replied, “I’ll go back to Wyoming and pick up a few and bring them here.” Some may say this is a three year old’s uninformed reintroduction plan though I am sure many said the same when it was suggested that we reintroduce Canadian wolves to the U.S. Northern Rockies.
Our trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park was amazing and to this day our daughter mentions the wolves and the need to save them. She taught me that I cannot simply accept the reality that wolves once lived in a place, but that I need to be an active force to make sure that the wolf is protected, able to thrive, and coexist with us. In essence, my young daughter reminded me that I need to be an ally for the wolf, for in doing so I will be an ally for our environment. She believes, and I agree, that our world is better with wolves on the landscape.
Children are wise beyond their years and not anchored with the pessimism or cynicism of adults. Through my work with and for the Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin, I hope to grow into an empathetic voice for wolves. I also hope to engage in meaningful conversations with those that disagree with me or share a different worldview. Most of all, I hope that my daughter sees her father working to protect what we both love. If I want my daughter to be a caretaker of this world, I need to be one now for she will learn more from what I am than what I teach her.