Residents cry wolf over new neighbors
Threatened species comes to Door County
By DAN EGAN
Last Updated: June 28, 2003
Newport State Park – The stuffed wolf on display at this Door County park
headquarters was always just for show.
Visitors would come in swearing they saw a wolf loping about the park’s
forests and meadows, but then they would get a close-up look at the
animal’s actual size. They would leave convinced that what they saw was
only a coyote, or maybe a fox.
Wolves, after all, may have returned to the deer-thick forests of northern
Wisconsin, but nobody figured the king of the carnivores would settle in a
place as tame as Door County.
Then last month, an 82-pound wolf was shot by a hunter at the northern end
of the county. The shooter claimed he thought he had a coyote in his
The timber wolf is considered threatened under the federal Endangered
Species Act, and killing one can lead to stiff penalties, but no charges
“The primary reason is, Door County has never had a confirmed wolf,” said
Mike Neal, Department of Natural Resources warden. “They’re not supposed
to be here.”
Don’t tell that to the wolves.
Wolves may be from Michigan
Evidence of wolves in the county has trickled in over the past several
years. Some people have reported hearing howls. Others have seen tracks.
Hunters have reported seeing the animals trying to chase down deer.
The reports were initially treated as suspect by the DNR, and the animals
often written off as coyotes or dogs. Look at a map, and it is easy to see
why. Much of the county is actually an island, thanks to the canal at
Sturgeon Bay. This time of year, the animals would have to cross a bridge
to get into the area. Also, the City of Green Bay and its suburbs stand
between the county and the wolf packs that populate northern Wisconsin.
But take a closer look at the map. Door County is separated from the wilds
of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by only about 15 miles of rolling blue water
- an insurmountable distance in summer, but “just a hop, skip and a jump
in winter,” said Dick Baudhuin, an avid hunter who says wolves have been
prowling around his property just north of Sturgeon Bay.
The wolves, which can cover more than 20 miles a day, may be crossing
Green Bay via Chambers Island, which sits almost directly between Door
County and Michigan’s Menominee County, about seven miles from each shore.
Another possibility is that the animals are island-hopping south from the
“I guess Door County would have a terrific deer population, but if (the
wolves) stayed there too long, they’d be stuck,” said Adrian Wydeven, head
of the DNR’s wolf recovery program.
That might be exactly what happened this year. Reports of wolf sightings
have been on the rise, and warden Neal said the evidence suggests that
there may now be as many as a half dozen animals in the county.
Making a comeback
The fact that wolves are at the Door is just the latest chapter in a
remarkable comeback for the once-reviled species.
Wolves in Wisconsin were hunted, trapped and poisoned into oblivion by the
1950s, but thanks to protections under the Endangered Species Act, they
have steadily expanded their range in the past two decades from northern
Minnesota into Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula.
The latest count is 335, though Wydeven says the actual number may be
higher, since wolves that leave their packs are hard to track. Whatever
their number, it’s apparent that the animals are steadily creeping out of
the forests and into the paved corners of the state. In April, a wolf was
killed by a car in Waukesha County. The year before, one was hit by a car
in Dane County. The year before that, a wolf was found dead along I-94 in
Evidence is mounting that Wisconsin may be overfilling with wolves.
“This is probably an indication that the habitat in the forest is starting
to become saturated,” said Wydeven. “We shouldn’t assume that, because
wolves are showing up in these places, that these places are necessarily
suitable for wolves.”
Wolves could mean problems
Because of the rising numbers, the federal government in April
reclassified the wolf from “endangered” to “threatened.” That means
problem animals, such as those that grow addicted to livestock or pets,
can be killed by state or federal employees.
That’s good news to hunter Baudhuin, but not good enough. He says more
should be done to control the animals, and soon. There have been no
reports of wolves preying on livestock or pets in Door County, but
Baudhuin says it is a matter of time before conflicts start popping up.
“No question they can exist up here,” he said. “But are they going to
co-exist with residents and not create problems? No.”
Ephraim resident Steve Sauter takes a different view. He was excited to
spot what he thought was a wolf last winter. He figures there is room in
the county for them, especially in light of the large deer population. He
doesn’t think the annual hunt does enough to control deer numbers.
“We need to get rid of some of the damn deer,” said Souter. “The coyotes
can’t take them down, and the car is the only thing left.”
The automobile might also take its toll on Door County wolves. For now,
only government employees can shoot them, and Neal said the next hunter
who accidentally shoots a wolf could end up with a stiff fine.
“To kind of put it bluntly, they are on notice,” he said. “(Wolves) are
here. Now it gets back to one of the first things you’re taught in hunter
safety – unless you’re 100 percent sure of knowing what you’re shooting
at, you do not shoot.”