Perhaps there is no animal living within the borders of Wisconsin that causes more controversy than the wolf. And it seems as if that controversy will continue with a recent federal ruling that this animal be dropped from the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Last week, once again, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the wolf from the ESA, opening the door for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to put into place a wolf management plan. “Wisconsin has approximately 800 wolves, the most ever counted in the state,” said Governor Scott Walker in a press release announcing the delisting on Dec. 22. “This far exceeds both the Wisconsin wolf management plan goal of 350 and the federal recovery goal of 100 wolves for Michigan and Wisconsin. The state has exceeded its delisting goal eight times over and (now) must have flexibility to manage wolf problems.”
This isn’t the first time the federal government has given the state permission to control wolf numbers. It has been delisted from the ESA twice within the last five years, once in 2007 and then again in 2009. Both times animal rights groups including the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, Help Our Wolves Live, Friends of Animals and Their Environment, and Born Free USA opposed the delisting ruling.
But there’s no denying that with the growing number of wolves within Wisconsin, problems have increased. There have been depredation issues with wolves killing livestock and hunting dogs and sportsman, particularly deer hunters, also question the impact wolves have had on the number and distribution of deer. The DNR estimates that wolves killed 13,000 deer in 2009 which many hunters believe led to the lowest harvest numbers in recent memory.
Although livestock raisers and hunting dog owners have been compensated for their losses due to wolf predation over the years, (about $1 million for livestock compensation and more than $340,000 for the deaths of 153 dogs since 2010) delisting the wolf opens the door for these people to take matters into their own hands. Delisting Wisconsin’s wolves could eventually mean harvesting the animal through hunting or trapping and it would immediately allow private landowners to kill a wolf that is preying on livestock or a pet without the severe penalties that are incurred when a problem animal is listed as endangered.
Adrian Wydeven, a mammal ecologist with the DNR and head of the state’s wolf management program, has been studying Wisconsin wolves since 1990. “Wolf numbers continue to grow in the state,” he said. “And with that growth means more interaction between these animals and humans. That does cause conflicts.”
The wolf has always been a determined survivor here. Even when it was completely annilated from the entire state more than 50 years ago, it managed to hang on throughout the Great Lakes region, always at the Badgerland’s perimeter, waiting patiently to reintroduce itself to the woods and wildness of Wisconsin. While its current status is fraught with controversy, the wolf as a species, has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and flourish in this area over the years.
Once it was listed as an endangered species in 1973, and its fiercest enemy, man, was excluded from killing it, wolf numbers rebounded at an astonishingly fast pace. Considering it was officially extirpated from Wisconsin by bounty hunters in the late 1950s, the animal now, according to Wydeven’s recent studies, numbers close to 800.
But what does that mean for this animal that has caused years of division between its champions and enemies? Some consider the wolf the epitome of all things wild and its presence in the state means a chance for a healthy balance of predator and prey. But for others, when that prey becomes livestock or pets, or wildlife that sportsman consider valuable, then the wolf is considered at the least a nuisance, and at worst an animal to be killed at every opportunity.
That’s exactly what happened at the turn of the century when it was determined that the wolf’s sole purpose in the state was nothing less than a dangerous pest. The government put a bounty on this animal that was a big player in the landscape of Wisconsin before it was settled. A study conducted by the DNR in 1993 indicates that before 1832 there were between 3,000-5,000 wolves living in Wisconsin. But food sources and adequate habitat were also abundant. Animals like bison, elk, moose, caribou and white tail deer were all wolf prey at one time. And interactions with man were minimal.
However, once Wisconsin became settled, and particularly after large tracts of land were logged off in the late 1800s, wolf numbers dropped dramatically. Bullets, bounties and loss of habitat played a big role in its decreasing numbers. The last wolf was exterminated from southern Wisconsin in the 1880s. The last wolf in central Wisconsin was killed in Waushara County in 1914. By 1930 the wolf was restricted to only a dozen counties in the northern part of the state. Wolf numbers declined from about 150 in 1930 to less than 50 by 1950. The last wolf pack in Wisconsin disappeared by 1956 about the time state legislature removed wolf bounties.
By 1960 the wolf was considered extirpated from Wisconsin and remained at that status until 1975. In 1973 the federal government placed the animal on the ESA. According to a report by Wydeven, Minnesota wolf packs started expanding and in the winter of 1974-75 a wolf pack was discovered near Duluth. By 1980 there were five packs, ranging from areas near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border to as far south as Lincoln county.
In 1986 the DNR enacted a wolf recovery plan that would focus on recovery of the animal within the state. This program had three goals which included supporting a minimum of 80 wolves for three consecutive years; to reclassify the animal as state threatened and work on downlisting the wolf to a threatened status within the Great Lakes region. The recovery goal of 80 wolves was achieved in 1995 when 83 to 85 were counted. After that the population grew fast and by 1999 about 200 wolves were living in Wisconsin.
No animal has been on, and then off, the ESA more than the wolf. Both in 2007 and in 2009, animal right groups fought the delisting and won with arguments that not all wolf packs located throughout the state were thriving. Earlier this year the federal government was once again ready to delist the wolf but animal right groups claimed that there were now two different species of wolves to be considered. “It’s not clear whether that is the case,” said Wydeven. “There is a mixed ancestry in all the wolves in Wisconsin but it’s not scientifically clear whether they represent an entirely different species. Wolves act as one species with the same behavior and reproductive rates no matter what their genes represent.”
Delisting the wolf could open the door for a hunting and trapping season on the animal in the future. Primarily though, according to Wydeven, it will allow property owners to manage the animal on private land without repercussions of a severe punishment. “Killing an endangered animal no matter what it is doing on somone’s property almost always results in a fine or worse,” he said. “With delisting, a property owner could legally manage wolves that are killing livestock or harming pets. They still would have to notify the DNR but they would have the right to kill a wolf if it was threatening or harming livestock.”
And it is unclear whether animal right groups will once again fight the delisting ruling, especially with wolf numbers so high in Wisconsin. “There is a 30 day period where groups can come forward and challenge the ruling,” said Wydeven. “Then there would be a court process to get the wolf back on the ESA.”
On the website for the Center of Biological Diversity, Staff Attorney Collette Adkins Giese, released this statement “Wolf recovery in the Midwest has been a tremendous success, but the job is far from complete.The three Great Lakes states with wolves all plan to kill more wolves and to reduce populations through hunts and other means. Wolves remain threatened by human intolerance and persecution. More should be done to help people live with wolves and increase tolerance before protections are removed.”
So while the controversy continues, it’s clear wolves are here to stay in Wisconsin. But how they are managed, will always be a subject for debate.