Wolves are returning to their rightful place
By Kurt Krueger
In The Outdoors
DRIVING JUST after darkness fell on the Sayner landscape one evening last month, my son Steve and I noticed shining eyes in the ditchline ahead.
That’s nothing unusual with the high densities of deer that exist along County Highway N, so we weren’t paying a lot of attention as we approached the spot.
But the animal that took off running for the nearby woods, illuminated by our headlights, definitely got our attention.
It wasn’t much smaller than a deer but it didn’t have the brown or reddish brown coat we expected to see. Instead, its hair was gray with a hint of black, like that of a coyote.
It lumbered with long strides as it attempted to pick up speed to elude our vehicle, and we got a very good look at it before it disappeared into the pines about a quarter-mile west of McKay’s Corner Store.
I looked at Steve, who was thinking the same thing, and asked him just how much he thought that animal weighed.
“Over a hundred pounds. It had to be a timber wolf,” he said. “Did you see how big the head was?”
The sighting was one of those fulfilling experiences that are hard to put into words. It was a rare sight, of course, but it was more than that. It was like a homecoming for a native who had been gone far too long.
There is just something truly wild about having wolves in Vilas and Oneida counties again.
And while some deer hunters and others aren’t so excited that they have returned, it’s a good feeling to know we haven’t permanently damaged the wolf’s habitat.
The event stirred in my memory last week as I opened the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) latest progress report on wolf monitoring, covering the period from October 2001 to March 2002.
Maybe it’s not so coincidental that on Page 17 of the report, biologists said the highest number of reported wolf observations came from Vilas County, where 20 of the 188 “probable” sightings occurred. I never called the DNR, so this might be number 21.
Our sighting wasn’t as rare as I first thought.
“Several reports were received from western Vilas County, west of the Escanaba Lake pack,” reports the DNR. “This is the first year the Escanaba Lake pack has been identified and the reports may indicate that the pack actually occupies a larger territory than indicated on the pack distribution map.”
The other good news in the report was that Wisconsin’s wolf population continued to grow last year, now numbering between 323 and 339 animals in 81 packs or groups. That’s at least 75 more wolves than a year ago.
The report says the Escanaba group contains three wolves based on 30 miles of track surveys that were done last winter.
Also close by is the Stella Lake pair in Oneida County, just south of Three Lakes. One of the pair, a collared yearling female, was observed three times with two other wolves in the Little Rice River area and with one wolf in the Stella Lake area.
It may seem too coincidental, but as I’ve written before in this space, my son Brian and I had two wolves running down the road in front of our truck in the spring of 2001 just east of Stella Lake.
They certainly fit the description of the DNR’s report, one very large wolf and a companion that was very small. They dashed off the road and through a tag elder swamp like it was a walk in the park.
To put this into perspective, I live in Three Lakes but spend a lot of time fishing lakes in Sayner and Boulder Junction. As someone who drives an average of 24,000 miles a year, I get more than my share of opportunity to see wildlife.
What I have not seen, for the record, are any of the wolves from the four in the Pelican Lake Pack in Oneida, from the three in Nineweb Lake Pack in Vilas, or from the two in the Giant Pine Pack just east of Three Lakes (Forest County).
There are another two wolves identified in the Alvin area of Forest and Florence counties. Because winter tracking showed they went north across the Brule River, researchers speculate they might have come from Michigan.
The not-so-good news is that 24 wolves were found dead in the state during the winter study period, including seven collared wolves that were being actively monitored.
Overall causes of mortality included nine or 10 shootings, seven vehicle collisions, four likely mange, two caused by other wolves, and one unknown.
Though mange was an issue, killing at least four wolves and causing some pack areas to be taken over by other wolves, it did not appear to reduce the rate of population growth.
So how high will the DNR let wolf numbers get?
“A population of 350 wolves in Wisconsin represents the desired management population, and once the population exceeds this level, pro-active controls and possibly a public harvest can be considered,” the report states.
Federal delisting will be necessary before more flexible controls are possible under state delisting.
None of that can happen without federal delisting, the criteria for which is a combined population of 100 wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan for five or more years.
The combined state populations have been at that level since 1994, and currently are approaching 600 wolves.
“Therefore, the federal delisting process can begin anytime and will probably begin soon after reclassification to threatened is completed,” officials wrote.
Federal reclassification to threatened began in 2000, and should be completed this summer. That means complete delisting will be at least another two or three years.
I have to wonder what in the world is taking the feds so long. If they delay the process too much longer, Wisconsin’s wolf numbers will hit 500 before there is any work done toward population control.
Wolves are Wisconsin natives and they belong here. I can see myself trying to get one to howl back at me on a moonlit summer night in the national forest. To hear that would be unforgettable.
But there are limits to what people will tolerate before they redevelop the anti-wolf attitude that once led to the extirpation of wolves here.
Keep a decent balance, and there will be few illegal wolf shootings. A goal of 350 wolves seems reasonable.