Tag Archives: Gray wolf Ecology

After Years of False Starts, WDNR Finally Moves on Developing an Updated Wolf Management Plan

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.  

The History

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

 

 

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Reports Increased Gray Wolf Numbers but Threats to Recovery Loom Ahead

Photo by John E. Marriott

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.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Seeks Public Input on New Wolf Plan

Image by Steve Felberg from Pixabay

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is hosting three live virtual open houses this fall to solicit feedback on the future of the state’s wolf management plan. Starting on September 29th, each meeting will target a different area of the state, beginning with the northwest.

While location-based participation is preferred, people from all over are invited to join. However, you must register before the sessions begin. Registration opens on September 21st and submitting questions in advanced is encouraged.

The open houses come on the heels of a wolf public attitudes survey that was conducted this summer by the DNR and the University of Minnesota. The survey showed overwhelming support for having wolves on the landscape, but there is a small minority who see them in a less favorable light, mainly ranchers and hunters.

With wolves set to lose federal endangered species protections by the end of this year, the state of Minnesota is in the process of crafting an updated version of their wolf management plan, which they hope to unveil sometime early next year. Wolves mean so many things to different people, so getting feedback from all stakeholders is key to having a plan that works for as many groups as possible.

“Discussions about wolves bring out opinions from a broad range of interests,” said Dan Stark, DNR wolf management specialist, on the DNR website. “These public meetings are part of a broader process to update the plan and give people an opportunity to share their views.”

The second and third meetings will be held on October 6th and 8th and will focus on Central and southern Minnesota, including the Twin Cities metro area, and Northeastern Minnesota, respectively.

In addition to getting feedback from the public, the DNR is working with an advisory committee and a technical committee to help develop the new plan. Both groups include a diverse array of representatives ranging from advocacy groups to trapping associations.

These sessions will be another chance for the department to gauge interest and see where the public stands on wolves. More importantly, this will be a chance for the public to engage, in real time, with the folks who craft wolf policy in the state.

“We look forward to having a dialogue about wolves in Minnesota,” Stark said. “What people think about where and how many wolves we have, conflicts regarding livestock depredation, the interrelationship of wolf and prey species, and future wolf management options are all important topics.”

If you can’t make it, there will also be a public comment period from September 29th – November 1st.

For many wolf lovers, it is hoped that the increased opportunities for advocates and tribes to engage will mean a better outcome for wolves. The previous iteration leaned heavily on input from ranchers and hunters, which meant killing wolves for sport was the preferred management tool. Let’s hope this time they get it right.

The Voyageurs Wolf Project: Ecology of Summer Wolves in Northern Minnesota

Some of the first howls from a pup of the Wiyapka Lake Pack in early May 2019. The pack had a total of 5 pups in 2019, and the pups were about 1 month old when this video was recorded. http://www.voyageurswolfproject.org

The Voyageurs Wolf Project is focused on understanding the summer ecology of wolves in and around Voyageurs National Park in the iconic Northwoods border region of Minnesota, USA.

Video Footage from Voyageurs Wolf Project

These wolves from the Shoepack Lake Pack are the most elusive and remote wolves in Voyageurs National Park and the Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem. This pack occupies the eastern half of the Kabetogama Peninsula, which is an incredibly wild place in the interior of Voyageurs National Park. This video footage is from this past November and December.

We have been in the field all week doing trail camera work (switching SD cards, putting in fresh batteries, putting out more cameras, etc) and got lots of neat footage from this past fall! Will be sharing more soon!

About Voyageurs Wolf Project

The Voyageurs Wolf Project, which is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota and Voyageurs National Park, was started to address one of the biggest knowledge gaps in wolf ecology—what do wolves do during the summer? Our goal is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the summer ecology of wolves in the Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem in northern Minnesota. Specifically, we want to understand the predation behavior and reproductive ecology (e.g., number of pups born, where wolves have dens, etc) of wolves during the summer.

Photograph credit Voyageurs Wolf Project

In March 2019, we set up three remote cameras at a den that had been used by the Sheep Ranch Pack from 2016–2018. The pack did not use this den in 2019 but wolves and a variety of other elusive animals visited this area. This video is a compilation of the wildlife activity that was recorded.

To learn more about The Voyageurs Wolf Project got to www.voyageurswolfproject.org

Photograph credit Voyageurs Wolf Project