Republicans introduce bill setting specific wolf population number

By: - April 17, 2023 6:00 am
A gray wolf (Getty Images). Endangered species hunting DNR

A gray wolf (Getty Images).

Before the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has even finished the process of creating a new plan for the management of the state’s wolf population, Republicans in the Legislature have introduced a bill that would ax the agency’s biggest policy shift. 

In the draft wolf management plan released last year, the agency moved to an “adaptive management” method which drops a specific target number for Wisconsin’s wolf population and instead breaks the state into regions in which the population will be annually assessed to determine if it needs to be allowed to grow, kept the same or reduced. The DNR already uses the adaptive management system for the state’s bear and deer populations. 

“Although numeric population goals may effectively account for basic biological requirements, they can easily fail to account for other biological concerns and social factors which are ever evolving through space and time,” the plan states. “An alternative to numeric population goals is to prioritize management actions in response to existing conditions as observed in the field and scientific data.”

The wolf plan was first established in 1999 and last updated in 2007. The effort to create a new plan started in 2021 and involved several public meetings of a committee consisting of agriculture, conservation and hunting groups, the state’s Native American tribes and several government agencies. 

In the original wolf plan, which was written as the animal was being reintroduced to the state, the DNR set a wolf population goal of 350. Adrian Wydeven, a representative of the conservation organization Wisconsin Green Fire who worked on the return of wolves to Wisconsin for the DNR, says that when they first set the plan there were only 200 wolves in the state. 

More than 20 years later, estimates put the number of wolves in Wisconsin at around 1,000.

No animal in Wisconsin exists in a more fraught political landscape. Many of the state’s tribes see the animal as sacred, yet farmers and ranchers across the state worry about depredation of their livestock. At the same time, pro-hunting interests want to continue the ability, enshrined in state law, to hunt the animal when it is not on the federal endangered species list, while conservation groups complain that the practices used to hunt wolves — often with hounds — are inhumane. 

A wolf hunt in 2021 added fuel to the flames when hunters exceeded the quota set by the DNR in just a few days. 

For years, the 350 goal in the existing wolf plan has caused complaints with anti-wolf groups seeing it as a ceiling and pro-wolf groups seeing it as a floor. 

Yet when the DNR released the draft of its new plan without a specific population goal, farming and hunting interests cried foul. 

“Our principal concern and one we advocated for as a member of the wolf management plan committee is a lack of a numeric population goal,” Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation Director of National Affairs Tyler Wenzlaff said at a listening session on the plan in February. “The current plan has a numeric population goal, target, whatever you want to call it of 350 wolves. The draft plan instead favors an adaptive management approach in which a set of ambiguous objectives are set. The lack of a numeric goal makes setting consistent zone harvest quotas virtually impossible as these objectives are broadly stated and can easily be redefined by the department.”

In a confirmation hearing for DNR Secretary-designee Adam Payne, Senate Republicans on the Natural Resources and Energy Committee asked him why the agency decided to go without a specific number. Payne said that not having a specific number stated allows the DNR to find the right balance between the technical carrying capacity of wolves on the state’s landscape and the social carrying capacity that residents would be OK with in northern parts of the state where interactions with wolves can be frightening or harmful to pets and livestock. 

“What we strive to look at is what is the biological carrying capacity? And what is the social capacity?” Payne said. “So the wolf plan years ago used to have a goal of 350 because the agency was looking, the state was looking to see wolves build up to a level that they had a healthy, sustainable population.” 

“I anticipate in the plan that we’re going to be revisiting the population dynamics and metrics more and being a little clearer with the public about, well, what is the sustainable wolf population? What is a healthy and sustainable wolf population based on the biological capacity, and then socially, what is it, so maybe we’ll see a range,” he continued. 

Despite the agency’s efforts to move to this method, Republicans in the Legislature introduced bills last month that would require the state to set a specific population number. 

Sen. Rob Stafsholt (R-New Richmond), one of the senate bill’s authors, told the Wisconsin Examiner he believes having a specific goal lets everyone on either side of the issue know where they stand. 

“I think part of my concern is this is such a long-time, contentious issue in the state of Wisconsin, I think having a population goal for a species in Wisconsin that we don’t have large, large numbers of, makes sense,” Stafsholt says. “It allows both sides to know where we’re going. The folks that want to have a harvest, they have a goal that we’re trying to get it down to. At the same time, the pro-wolf side can say, they can’t go below this population goal. When you’re dealing with an animal that gets listed and delisted back and forth, having consistency in what the target is, I think it’s important for both sides to have a target.”

A former member of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association’s board of directors — which participated in the committee that helped draft the plan — Stafsholt says he doesn’t think the DNR fully listened to the interest groups it invited to participate. 

“The DNR consulted with the stakeholders, let them speak their position, as we do on any issue in the Capitol, but there’s no requirement for the DNR to include what they said in the plan,” he says. “Were those groups allowed to give their opinion? Absolutely they were, but there’s no requirement they include their opinion.” 

Stafsholt’s bill doesn’t state what number the DNR should choose when setting the population goal, only that it must set a goal — a detail he says got some pushback from other Republicans in the Legislature. But, he says he doesn’t think it’s the Legislature’s place to micromanage the agency in that way. 

“Requiring a plan, trusting the agency to use science, there’s a scientific carrying capacity and social carrying capacity and I think that number needs to be decided by the agency,” he says. “I had colleagues that wanted me to put that number in there. The Legislature can require a number but setting the number is up to the agency.”

But conservation interest groups say it’s strange for the Legislature to come over the top after the committee process already involved input from a wide array of views. Conservationists also argue that going without a specific number allows more flexibility in various areas of the state. 

“It seems like an odd way for the Legislature to try to regulate the wolf population, going around the process of using an extensive stakeholder committee that developed a rough plan with the DNR,” Wydeven says. “The current plan has better features by focusing control over smaller areas … having that flexibility was important but you didn’t have to drastically decrease the wolf population. The DNR demonstrated then that having more flexible management was good so you could focus on the wolves in the areas causing problems.” 

Wydeven says the last 20 years have shown that Wisconsin’s landscape can handle a lot more wolves than 350. In areas in which wolves are causing a lot of problems, the draft plan allows for more culling, while letting wolves in other parts of the state thrive. Plus, he says the increasing wolf population has had other ecological benefits, including a reduction in the spread of chronic wasting disease among the state’s deer and less overgrazing on tree saplings. 

“If we need to control wolves we should control them in the areas they’re causing problems,” he says. “The plan points out two areas of the state that have the most intense depredation. At the same time it allows the areas where wolves aren’t causing problems to maintain more natural population levels.” 

A DNR spokesperson declined to comment, saying the agency can’t discuss pending legislation outside of the formal committee process. Both the Assembly and Senate versions of the bill have been referred to their relevant committees. 

The Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the DNR, is expected to vote on the draft plan in October.


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.