Yesterday marked the start of the wolf hunting season, which will run Feb. 22-28. Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced the start of the hunt, which came after circuit court orders compelling the state to formulate a hunting season. But conservation organizations are condemning the decision, saying the decision to hunt the animals during breeding season will jeopardize the wolves’ recovery.
The court rulings had their roots in last-ditch moves by the Trump Administration that removed the gray wolf (Canis Lupus) from the federal endangered species list. According to a DNR press release, the agency received more than 27,000 applications from hunters for 2,380 available licenses.
The DNR’s Natural Resources Board held a special meeting on Feb. 15 where it unanimously voted for a harvest quota of 200 wolves outside of reservation lands. Of the approved quota, 119 wolves are allocated to the state, while another 81 are allocated to the Ojibwe tribes. Treaty rights within the Ceded Territory were taken into consideration during the formation of the hunt.
Wolf conservation advocates, however, stress that Wisconsin’s wolf population is still vulnerable. Recent DNR surveys suggest there are approximately 1,000 wolves living in the Badger state. Although the DNR’s 2019-2020 wolf monitoring report noted a 13.1% increase in the wolf population, advocates are concerned about impact of the hunt on the population. With a quota set at 200 wolves, the hunting season could potentially kill 16% of the population. That would essentially erase the 13.1% increase in the species considered endangered until recently.
“There will be four hunters and trappers for every wolf in the state, with our state issuing 4,000 people licenses to kill wolves,” Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, said in a statement. “It’s bad enough that the kill is capped at 200 —an enormous percentage of the state’s wolf population — but that cap is unenforceable given the compressed time period for the hunt.”
The number of wolves killed in the coming days may far exceed the kill limit before word gets out to hunters and commercial trappers to stop the killing,” Pacelle warned. “Many wolf packs throughout the state will be decimated, for no reason other than groundless vengeance and thrill-killing.”
According to the DNR, there are about 256 wolf packs in Wisconsin, with an average of four wolves to a pack. According to the 2019-2020 monitoring report, some 16 known wolves are not associated with a pack. Unlike in other parts of the country where conservation measures reintroduced wolves, Wisconsin’s population stems from wolves that returned to the state while the species enjoyed federal protection.
The DNR also catalogs conflicts between wolves, humans, and livestock in a wolf depredation database. In 2020, numerous cows, dogs, farm hens, and sheep were reported as lost or injured during “probable” encounters with wolves. Many of these reports are from rural agricultural and farming communities. Wolf biologists have found that the pack animals more often seek wild deer, birds and others for their sustenance.
The department’s FAQ’s section also addresses fear of human-wolf encounters, writing “just like any wild animal, wolves tend to avoid humans. Verified cases of healthy wolves attacking humans are extremely rare, and there have been no documented cases in Wisconsin.” It adds that, “most incidents of wolf aggression toward people have involved wolves that have become habituated to people or involving domestic dogs.” Among the lost pets and livestock listed by the DNR are several hunting dogs.
“It’s especially sad because it’s incontrovertible that wolves are an ecological boon,” said Pacelle. “Both keeping deer numbers in check and also acting as a bulwark against the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease among Cervids.”
The disease has become increasingly problematic in Wisconsin with cases detected in Wood, Shawano, and Washington Counties since December 2020. Several cases of wolves taking livestock and pets in 2020 came from Wood County, according to the DNR. Chronic Wasting Disease is a fatal, nervous system disease in deer, moose, elk, and reindeer/caribou. It gradually erodes the animal’s nervous system and, although no cases in humans have been detected, all harvested deer meat should be tested for the disease and, if positive, avoided.
“Is there anything more diabolical as hunting and cruelly trapping these family-oriented animals at this scale during their breeding season, just after they were wrongly removed from the list of federally ‘endangered’ animals?” Parcelle asks. Animal Wellness Action and other groups are calling for the gray wolf to be re-listed as an endangered species. They are also calling for Wisconsin to reevaluate the guidelines for the wolf hunts. A second 2021 season is planned for November.