Wisconsin’s wolf hunts will end on Feb. 24, two days after the season began on Feb. 22. In less than 24 hours, Wisconsin hunters have killed 82 of the 119 gray wolves (Canis lupus) that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allowed for the season.
The hunting season was formulated by the DNR after a circuit court ordered a season to begin. In the waning days of the Trump Administration, the gray wolf was removed from the federal endangered species list. Following up on that momentum, a Kansas-based hunters’ organization sued the DNR, claiming that not having a hunt violated the constitutional rights of hunters. A circuit court judge in Jefferson County ultimately agreed with the organization. Luke Hilgemann, president of Hunter Nation Inc., called the ruling “a historic victory for the Wisconsin hunter.”
A quota was set by the DNR for wolves to be hunted on non-reservation lands. Public input regarding the wolf hunt, as well as input from Wisconsin’s tribal communities, was limited.
Wisconsin last had a wolf hunt in 2014. Environmental advocates and members of the DNR’s Natural Resources Board questioned the quota, which included approximately 16% of the wolf population in Wisconsin. Gray wolves returned to Wisconsin in recent years as packs spread out from Minnesota. Currently, the population stands at a little more than 1,000 wolves, with 256 packs plus 16 lone wolves.
Adrian Treves, a professor of environmental studies at UW-Madison and an expert on co-existence and conflicts between humans and wildlife, finds several problems with the hunts. “The hunt is the first ever done in Wisconsin during the mating and pregnancy seasons of wolves, so we are fumbling in the dark for an understanding of how this affects population viability and the likely total mortality it will cause.” Treves tells Wisconsin Examiner.
He also notes that hunting the animals during this vulnerable time could multiply the death toll. “In addition to the quota, which is the legal, reported mortality, we should ask how many litters will be aborted or die orphaned because alpha males or females were killed,” Treves says. “Our research shows that illegal killing outpaces legal whenever wolf killing is liberalized. So we as a state have no idea of the ultimate sustainability, the unintended side-effect and lingering after-effects of this wolf hunt rammed through in record speed without due process and without tribal consultation.”
The DNR built the hunting season with rules to respect tribal rights, particularly with the Ojibwe tribes. Wisconsin hunters are, on paper, unable to take wolves on reservation lands. But animal rights organizations charge that poaching inevitably occurs; Animal Wellness Action called the hunt and the quota it set “unenforceable.”
Wolves generally avoid humans and human-inhabited areas. However, where they do come into conflict, domesticated dogs or livestock are usually involved. But Treves says research shows that hunting wolves in Michigan raised the likelihood of livestock loss. “So hunting will not do any of the good things for Wisconsin that are sometimes claimed,” says Treves.
Treves is also troubled by the lack of public input prior to the hunt. Emphasizing the DNR’s place as a “trustee” Treves says, “it owes a duty to the broadest public, not the narrow extreme of hunters that want to kill as many wolves as they see.”
The scientist adds that the process and quota assigned for a hasty hunt lacked scientific validity and could therefore jeopardize the ecological balance of the state. “The lack of science and the unjust process will jeopardize the November 2021 hunt for the majority of law-abiding ethical hunters out there and those of us who care that policy is science-based and fair to the broad public and future generations.”