Gray wolves (Canius Lupus) are making a comeback in the Badger State, and that’s worrying residents in rural parts of Wisconsin. While some see the population rebound as a conservation success story, others are worried about the danger these large predators pose to pets and humans.
The species is currently protected as a federally listed endangered species, after having been almost wiped out six decades ago. According to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), over-winter population surveys estimated that 914-978 of the pack animals may be roaming about the state’s woods and fields. Since this is only a 1% increase from the 2017-18 over-winter numbers, the DNR notes this “may suggest wolves have reached biological carrying capacity for the habitat available in Wisconsin.”
Statewide, an estimated 243 individual wolf packs are roaming Wisconsin, including on tribal lands. Contrary to rumor, wolves were not re-introduced into Wisconsin by the DNR or other agencies. Rather, after being listed as endangered, wolves that had fled to northern Minnesota recovered their numbers and returned to northern Wisconsin. Prior to European settlement in Wisconsin, it is estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 of the creatures called Wisconsin their home.
Their protected status presents a frustrating issue for farmers and rural residents, who are unable to kill the animals regardless of what they may do on their properties. Farmers who own cattle are encouraged to promptly tag their livestock, and maintain accurate and careful numbers on individuals that go missing or are found ravaged. Farmers must also be attentive to the behavior of their herds, noting if the animals seem stressed, are grouping together rather than freely roaming a pasture, or refuse to enter certain areas.
A fact page provided by the DNR notes that wolves often avoid people: “Verified cases of healthy wolves attacking humans are extremely rare, and there have been no documented cases in Wisconsin. Most incidents of wolf aggression toward people have involved wolves that have become habituated to people or involved domestic dogs.” According to the DNR, wolf attacks on dogs often occur when hunting dogs are training for the bear season. Other times, a dog that is hunting or running down a game animal may encounter a wolf also persuing the prey.
The DNR maintains yearly data on incidents of suspected or confirmed wolf predation on livestock or pets. According to the 2019 numbers, the most recent attack was on Nov. 10, 2019, when a bird-hunting dog named Brittany was taken in Bayfield County. The largest taking of animals was 13 sheep in Wood County on July 7, 2019. In another reported incident, two sheep and 23 lambs were reported missing, with seven lambs confirmed killed along with four sheep, in Price County. Another three sheep and a lamb were reported injured during the same incident.
Anecdotal accounts of favored family pets being taken by predators, however, have prompted some to call for the wolf to be removed as a protected species. So long as it remains listed as endangered, no one is permitted to shoot or harm the animals. Nor will a hunting season for wolves be opened to cull their populations.
In May, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the protected status for gray wolves to address these concerns. “We propose this action because the best available scientific and commercial information indicates that the currently listed entities do not meet the definitions of a threatened species or endangered species under the Act due to recovery.” The agency sought public input earlier this year, both from residents and scientifically informed experts. The gray wolf continues to be protected as federally listed an endangered species.