A gray wolf (Getty Images).
Three of Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board (NRB) attended public hearings Wednesday where members of a Senate committee questioned them about some of the state’s thorniest conservation issues.
The seven-member NRB sets policies for the state Department of Natural Resources, weighing in on important issues such as wolf hunting and water quality. For years, Republicans in the Senate have refused to hold hearings for Evers’ NRB appointees. That strategy, which was ultimately endorsed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, allowed Republican appointees of former Gov. Scott Walker to retain majority control of the body.
In May of 2021, Walker-appointee Frederick Prehn’s six-year term expired, yet he insisted he did not need to step down until his replacement was confirmed by the Senate. As Prehn was holding onto control, he was in communication with staff members of Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) about how to stay in power.
The aim of retaining that control, according to Prehn’s text messages and emails with Republicans across the state — which were released through open records requests — was partially to influence board decisions on wolf hunting.
Prehn finally stepped down in January, which allowed Evers to belatedly establish a majority of his appointees on the board at the beginning of his second term.
At the hearing on Wednesday, Evers appointees Sharon Adams, Paul Buhr and Dylan Jennings were questioned by Sens. Rob Stafsholt (R-New Richmond) and Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) about the DNR’s proposed new plan for the management of wolves in Wisconsin.
The plan, which does not set a numeric population goal for wolves in the state, has drawn the ire of conservatives who want the statewide wolf population kept as small as possible. Instead of setting a statewide target number, the draft plan divides the state into several zones in which the agency can recommend if the population should be allowed to increase, be maintained or decreased based on the region’s biological carrying capacity for the animals and the level of conflict between wolves, livestock and people.
The politics of wolf hunting in Wisconsin are complicated. Residents of the northern parts of the state, where most of the wolf population lives, are leery of having the animals so close to their cattle, pets and children while the issue is more abstract to people in the more populated southern parts of the state. At the same time, the wolf is sacred to much of the state’s Native American population and the return of the wolf to the state is seen as a conservation success story.
In Wisconsin, state law requires that an annual wolf hunt be held whenever the animal isn’t federally listed as endangered. A hunt in February of 2021 was widely criticized for surpassing the quota set by the DNR.
During a wolf hunt, the DNR sets a quota and a certain number of tags are allowed. A portion of that quota is reserved for the state’s Ojibwe tribes as part of the tribes’ treaty rights. In 2021, the Ojibwe didn’t kill any wolves but hunters killed the number of wolves that had been reserved for them anyway.
There has not been another hunt since then after a federal judge re-listed the animal.
“How do we find balance with all the different concerns around the wolf population? I have found living where I live, I have had many encounters with wolves, and they will teach you very, very early on that you are not at the top of the food chain,” Felzkowski said. “So how do we balance tribal issues, concerns around the wolf hunt, with the constituents that are literally not letting their children play in the backyard right now?”
Felzkowski and Stafsholt repeatedly attempted to nail down whether or not the appointees would vote for a wolf hunt in the future.
Jennings, who would be the first enrolled tribal member to be confirmed to the board, said if the data supported it, he could see himself voting to approve a wolf hunt.
“I guess the framework of an adaptive management plan is just that, it’s adaptive, and I really appreciate that we’re starting to use those terms in conservation,” he said. “I know not everybody’s going to be pleased with it. But what that means to me as an adaptive management plan is that nothing within that plan is set 100% in stone, there are things that can be changed, adapted, and kind of modified as we go forward and try to figure out more about the population, try to figure out more about human-wolf interactions.”
Jennings previously worked as the spokesperson for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) where he was often quoted in news media as being critical of the 2021 wolf hunt. Stafsholt asked if those comments reflected how he would vote in the future on wolf management issues. Jennings said he was doing his job as a representative for tribal interests when he stood up against the denial of their treaty rights, but as a member of the NRB his job would be to serve the whole state.
“One thing that I would ask you to understand is that when you’re in a tribal leadership position, your responsibility is to those people in that community just like each and every one of you sitting here as well,” Jennings said. “I don’t allow my own personal beliefs and where I come from to get in the way of working and representing a more broader, diverse group of constituents. I understand my role here in the NRB would be to represent the whole state, the whole entire state, not just my community.”
Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) implied in a question that Jennings’ background would be an asset to the board, helping bridge the differences of opinion between the state’s tribal members and their northern Wisconsin neighbors.
“You would be the first enrolled tribal member to be on the Natural Resources Board,” Spreitzer said. “Do you think having that voice on thorny issues like this can maybe help to improve everybody’s understanding? As you know, we’re going to be grappling with the fact that perhaps tribal members and non-tribal members living in the same area may have very different feelings about wolves, and that’s something that we have to grapple with as a state.”
Buhr, a retired dairy farmer from Vernon County, was appointed as the statutorily required agricultural representative on the board. When asked similar questions about the wolf hunt, he said his farmer friends favor a much lower number of wolves in the state than currently set but that difference of opinion is why the management plan should exist.
“I asked at the last card game that was attended by my farmer friends, what their population goal should be in Wisconsin and I’m going to tell you it was a lot lower than 350,” Buhr said. “We will have to work out the number that will be sustainable in these different regions … but I am in favor of a wolf hunt. I’m hoping we can come to some number that is greater than my friends’ zero but maybe not so that they’re bothering people.”
Adams, who ran an organization with her husband to revitalize her Milwaukee neighborhood in an environmentally sustainable way, was less direct about how the state should manage the wolf population.
“I’m strongly committed to a management plan,” she said. “I think we’re still in the process of deciding if there should be a goal and what that goal should be. So I’m listening to our residents, in particular in those zones. I’m also wanting to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to reach goals, practices and procedures that are sustainable.”
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