A gray wolf (Getty Images).
The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board voted unanimously Wednesday to implement a new wolf management plan, approving the Department of Natural Resources’ decision not to include a numerical population goal over the objections of Republican lawmakers and pro-hunting groups.
The board is now entirely made up of appointees of Gov. Tony Evers, including four new members, who were appointed to the body last week by Evers when Republicans in the state Senate voted to fire his previous appointees, partially because of their stated support for the DNR plan.
The plan’s approval is the culmination of a years-long process as wolf management in Wisconsin has become one of the state’s most controversial conservation issues. Public comment ahead of the vote lasted for hours as more than 50 people weighed in one last time on the draft plan. That comment came after thousands of people shared their opinions during the drafting process.
Casting a shadow over the new plan for many advocates was the controversial 2021 wolf hunt. State law requires that whenever the animal is not listed as endangered by the federal government, a hunt must be held. That year, Hunter Nation, a pro-hunting advocacy group, successfully sued to have a hunt held in February. The hunt quickly surpassed the quota of 119 the DNR had set and a number of wolves were killed that should have been included in the quota set aside for the state’s Native American tribes as part of their treaty rights. For many of the state’s tribes, the wolf is viewed as sacred.
The debate surrounding wolf management in Wisconsin is heated in part because of the divide between the cultural significance of the animal to the tribes and the wariness that many northern Wisconsin residents feel living near the animal.
Under the plan, the state will not have a numerical population goal, which moves the DNR away from the previous plan, which set the population goal at 350 at a time when the DNR was still working to reestablish the wolf population after the animal had been driven out of the state. Instead of a goal number, the plan moves to an “adaptive management” policy, which divides the state into zones in which the number of wolves in those zones can be managed more granularly.
“We’re moving away from using a specific number of wolves as the primary management objective,” said Randy Johnson, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, who led the drafting of the plan. “We’re moving away from that population goal approach, and instead focusing explicitly on those areas of priority, six management objectives. We’re gonna focus directly on those. These include things like ensuring a healthy and sustainable wolf population, addressing and reducing wolf conflicts, providing multiple benefits including regulated public hunting and trapping of wolves consistent with state law.”
Estimates put the current wolf population at around 1,000 animals. Johnson said Wednesday that the new plan reflects the fact that the state is moving away from reintroducing the animal back to the environment and is managing a healthy and stable population.
Republicans, along with pro-farming and pro-hunting groups, have objected to this plan, insisting on a specific number — often for that number to remain at 350, which some anti-wolf groups across the state view as a hard cap on the wolf population. Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require the DNR to institute a population goal.
During the public comment ahead of the vote, a representative of Hunter Nation called for a 350 wolf goal and, when the animal is next delisted, a hunt quota of more than 400 wolves, which would be more than twice the number of wolves killed in the controversial 2021 hunt. Another commenter referred to the wolf as an “invasive species” despite the animal’s historical presence in Wisconsin and the cultural significance it has to the state’s Native American tribes.
“Today the Department of Natural Resources missed an opportunity to restore trust from Wisconsin’s rural residents,” Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Kevin Krentz said in a statement. “By approving the wolf management plan, the Natural Resources board chose out of state advocates over Wisconsin rural voices who have developed a consensus of opposition to the plan. This plan does nothing to address wolf/livestock conflicts and in some places encourages it. Wisconsin Farm Bureau will continue to advocate for management of our state’s top predator and make sure rural voices are represented.”
On the other side, some conservation groups have objected to the plan’s inclusion of a table which outlines generally how the DNR would manage the population when it is at certain levels. For example, when the population is around 1,200 wolves, the state would look at ways to decrease it, but when it sits lower, the state would work to keep that population stable. Representatives of the conservation groups said during public comment Wednesday that the table’s inclusion in the plan is too close to a numerical goal to which they’re opposed.
The plan also includes more specific details for how a wolf hunt should be managed whenever the state holds one. For some conservation groups, the inclusion of these provisions is objectionable because of their complete opposition to wolf hunting.
In passing the plan, board members and Johnson said that doing so helps move the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service toward removing the wolf from the endangered species list, which would allow the state to hold an annual hunt and take more control in managing the population, especially when dealing with wolves that are killing livestock. A federal decision on delisting is expected in February of next year, Johnson said.
“The feds are certainly paying attention to both us and our neighboring states and other states with wolf populations,” Johnson said. “And I think by moving forward with a plan that is grounded in good science that tries to balance all these concerns and perspectives and public input we’ve heard and lays out clearly what our intentions are — I think it can’t guarantee a delisting. But I think it’s really important to put our best foot forward as a state.”
Paul Buhr, a board member who is specifically appointed to represent the interests of farmers in the state, addressed the opposition from groups such as the Farm Bureau by saying approving the plan would allow more management of the wolf population.
“I’m supposed to represent farmers on this and farmers have been very, are very concerned about this,” Buhr said. “Unless we have a management plan in place, we probably won’t be delisting. This plan will allow producers the ability to deal with a bad wolf or bad pack, the DNR will help with that. I just feel that this plan is in the best interest, long-term, for farmers. That’s obviously not everything they want. But there’s a lot of people that didn’t get everything they want.”
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