Wolves making comeback in upper Midwest
Careful management in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan likely to lead to
emergence from endangered status
By Tom Nugent – Special to the Chicago Tribune
Published August 28, 2002
Perched behind the wheel of her 1997 Ford Escort, Pam Troxell drove slowly
along a winding dirt road on a recent summer evening, deep in the heart of
Wisconsin’s isolated Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
After reaching a sharp curve in the road–a familiar landmark–the
43-year-old Troxell pulled the car to the shoulder and got out. Minutes later,
standing in a forest clearing, Troxell threw her head back and sent up a
long, echoing howl.
After a lengthy silence, she howled again–a high-pitched, sirenlike
wailing that floated out over the silent forest.
This time she got a response, the faint but clearly identifiable cry of a
barred owl, which sounds like: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?
Then silence again. Troxell took a few steps toward her car and froze.
Suddenly the air was full of sound, as several wolves howled in a wailing
After listening carefully to determine whether there were any newborn
“pups” among the howlers, Troxell returned to the car and recorded the
results of her latest “wolf survey” in her notebook.
Like Troxell, a volunteer coordinator at the Northland College-based
Timber Wolf Alliance in Ashland, Wis., nature-lovers across the Upper
Midwest have been celebrating the return of the gray wolf (also known as
the “timber wolf”) to forest habitats in Minnesota, Wisconsin and
After coming perilously close to extinction in the first half of the 20th
Century, the Midwest’s wolf population has soared to more than 3,100
animals, with about 2,600 wolves ranging freely through the wilds of
Minnesota and the remainder divided about equally between Wisconsin and
Experts say the federal government is about to take the wolf off the
endangered list in Michigan and Wisconsin and list the animal in the “threatened”
“The return of the gray wolf is a wonderful symbol of the success of
wildlife recovery programs in this country,” said Jim Hammill, wildlife management
supervisor for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
L. David Mech, a Minnesota-based federal wolf researcher for the U.S.
Geological Survey, said “wolves in Michigan and Wisconsin are increasing
by 25 to 30 percent a year, and they continue to thrive in Minnesota.”
“The wolves are doing well these days, thanks in part to the Endangered
Species Act,” said the researcher and founder of the International Wolf
Center, a public education center in Ely, Minn., the heart of northeastern
Minnesota’s wolf country. “These are magnificent animals, and I’m sure the
reclassification from `endangered’ to `threatened’ will please many
wildlife advocates and environmentalists.”
But Mech warned that the rapidly expanding wolf population has already
begun posing an increased economic threat to farmers in some areas of the
“If we’re going to have more wolves moving around on the landscape, we
have to manage them very carefully,” Mech said. “For a lot of farmers,
this is a very important economic issue, since the law prohibits them from
killing wolves, even when they lose a cow to a wolf pack.”
Minnesota cattleman Chuck Becker, who runs a large farming operation in a
wilderness area where wolves are frequent visitors, said wolves have cost
him in recent years. “As livestock farmers, we turn our cattle into
money,” he said. “This is our livelihood, and when you get out there in
the yard and find your cow ripped to shreds [by wolves], that really
While pointing out that a dairy cow can easily cost a farmer up to $1,800
to replace, Becker said farmers rarely receive enough compensation under
state wildlife-conservation programs to make up for the loss when wolves
Although he frets daily over the safety of his cows, Becker described
himself as an admirer of the gray wolf. “They’re fast and they’re powerful
and they’re one of the smartest animals you’ll ever see.”
Michigan cattleman Frank Wardynski, who watches over 300 cows near
Ontonagon in the Upper Peninsula, said that “one of the biggest problems
we face is proving to the wildlife people that we lost a cow to a wolf” in
order to receive compensation.
Wardynski said that in one recent incident, a local livestock farmer who
had suffered a wolf-kill hired an expert to analyze samples of wolf dung
from his farm yard. “The dung had cow hair all through it, but the state
people said that wasn’t enough for them,” he said.
Responding to complaints by farmers that wolves have killed more than 600
of their cows in the three states during the 1990s, wildlife officials
said the success of the wolf recovery program will require them to do a
better job of relocating–or even exterminating–wolves that attack
livestock. Once the reclassification takes place, they said, occasional
“rogue” wolves that eat farm animals in Michigan and Wisconsin can be
exterminated by state officials.
`Have to be controlled’
“We have to do a good job of managing the wolves and preventing them from
harming the livestock farmers,” said Michigan DNR specialist Hammill.
“It’s important that we not put the wolf on a pedestal. They have to be
controlled just like other animals or we’ll gradually lose our respect for
Adrian Wydeven, an ecologist with the Wisconsin DNR, pointed out that
wolves perform a valuable service in nature by helping to control the
population of deer, beaver and coyote. While speculating that the recovery
program has restored perhaps 10 percent to 20 percent of the pre-Columbian
Great Lakes wolf population (estimated at 40,000), Wydeven said the
elegant animals often provide wildlife lovers the thrill of a lifetime–a