Wildlife conservation group files lawsuit against new Wisconsin wolf plan

By: - November 28, 2023 5:45 am
A gray wolf (Getty Images). Endangered species hunting DNR

A gray wolf (Getty Images).

A wildlife conservation group alleges the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Natural Resources Board (NRB) infringed on the group’s constitutional rights to due process and equal protection, and violated a number of state laws, when adopting a new wolf management plan last month. 

The Great Lakes Wildlife Alliance made the allegations in a lawsuit filed in Dane County Circuit Court last week. The lawsuit is asking a judge to declare the wolf management plan invalid, sending the DNR back to the drawing board to fix the alleged errors. 

The NRB unanimously adopted the new wolf management plan and its related hunting and trapping rules at a meeting on Oct. 25. In the lawsuit, the alliance argues that the NRB and the DNR staff who wrote the rule ignored science while violating state open meetings laws and the Administrative Procedure Act to favor anti-wolf groups as it worked on revisions to the plan. 

The lawsuit alleges the DNR showed a pattern of “viewpoint discrimination that violated Petitioner’s rights under the Wisconsin Constitution, and failing to comply with their public trustee obligations to ensure the conservation of Wisconsin’s wildlife for future generations,” and argues the agency violated the rights of the GLWA and allied groups “by selectively rejecting public comments from disfavored parties.”

After the wolf plan was updated, anti-wolf organizations, including the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and a number of hunting groups criticized its adoption. Now, with the lawsuit, advocates on both sides of one of the state’s most heated conservation issues are coming out against the new plan. 

Wolf politics are especially controversial in the state in part because of the divide between the cultural significance of the animal to Native American tribes and the wariness that many northern Wisconsin residents feel living near the animal. State law requires that a wolf hunt be held whenever the animal isn’t listed as endangered by the federal government. A controversial hunt in 2021 exceeded the quota set by the DNR. 

The previous wolf management plan was adopted in 1999 and hadn’t been updated since 2007. 

Another hunt scheduled for later in 2021 was stopped by a judge because the DNR was operating hunts under outdated emergency rules. 

The process for writing the new plan began in 2021 with the convening of an advisory committee — which included groups representing the wide range of views on the issue — and the collection of public comment. 

A draft of the plan was released last summer, drawing complaints from anti-wolf interests because of the decision to not include a specific population goal for wolves in the state. Instead, the plan proposed moving to an “adaptive management” policy, which divides the state into zones and allows for  more local control of the wolf population in each region. 

That decision represented a departure from the 1999 plan which set a population goal of 250 when the DNR was still working to reintroduce the wolf to the state. While the 250 goal was not a hard ceiling on the number of wolves in the state, many wolf hunters and anti-wolf groups saw it as such. 

After the release of the draft plan, the DNR held a handful of listening sessions — attended by then-DNR Secretary Adam Payne and a couple members of the NRB — with largely pro-wolf-hunting groups. These listening sessions constitute the alleged open meetings law violations made in the lawsuit even though a quorum of NRB members was not present at the sessions. 

In a revised draft of the plan released after the listening session, which was the version ultimately adopted by the NRB last month, the adaptive management strategy was changed a bit to include a table that outlines generally how the DNR would respond to certain population ranges in different parts of the state. 

The change drew criticism from conservation groups — including many public comments at the meeting in which the plan was passed and, ultimately, the lawsuit — without getting pro-hunting groups on board. Yet it represented what DNR officials saw as a compromise between the two sides. Republicans in the Legislature continue to work toward passing a bill that would require the DNR to set a hard population goal.

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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.

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