One is a plump twig-and bark-eating rodent with a powerful tail. The other is a long-legged furry predator who typically runs with a pack and is good at stalking deer.
The beaver and the timber wolf were spotlighted during a July 9 forum at the Cable Community Center, with former state wolf biologist Adrian Wydeven as the guest speaker at the Joseph Jenkins Lecture Series presented by the Cable Natural History Museum.
Wydeven, who currently works as a wildlife specialist with the Department of Natural Resources and lives in the Cable area, said the DNR is in the process of updating management plans for both species. The wolf and the beaver have several similarities as animals and have benefits for the northern Wisconsin forest ecology as long as their numbers are not too high, he said.
They “are monogamous mammals — one male and one female raise their young,” Wydeven said. “They’re both territorial, where they mark and protect their boundaries.”
They give birth to their young in the springtime; a typical wolf litter is five to six pups and a beaver litter is four to five kits. And “they provide habitat for each other and impact each other’s lives,” Wydeven added. “Beavers are a major food source for wolves” in the spring and fall when beavers are roaming on land to cut and gather wood to build dams and eat.
Wolves will use old beaver lodges as den sites, he added. The meadows created by beavers are favored rendezvous and pup-raising sites for wolves in the summertime. “Without wolves, beaver populations would grow to high levels,” he added.
Built of sticks and mud, beaver dams create widespread flooding of woodlands, which benefits other wildlife including otter, mink, muskrats, turtles, deer, bear, waterfowl, grouse and some kinds of fish.
On the other hand, beaver dams create problems on trout streams, blocking trout from migrating upstream and reproducing. and harmfully warming the water. Also, beavers can plug up culverts, causing flooding.
Wolves and beavers went through similar cycles of scarcity and abundance in Wisconsin, Wydeven said.
In the 1730s there are records of over 100,00 beaver pelts coming from the upper Mississippi region. The forest was made up primarily of hemlock, maple and pine, “which is not the best habitat for beaver,” he added.
By the 1850s, beavers were drastically reduced. The logging of the 1800s created more habitat for beaver, but uncontrolled trapping made them nearly extinct by the early 1900s. Seasons were closed from 1903-16 and 1924-33; there was limited trapping from 1934-39, and closed seasons in the mid 1940s.
By 1985, there were 225,000 beaver in the northern two-thirds of Wisconsin, and the major emphasis of the state beaver management plan in the 1990s was to reduce their population through liberalized trapping.
The rebound of beaver and wolf numbers “represent success stories,” Wydeven said. “Now there are very healthy populations of both species.”
“Beavers were nearly killed off because of fur trappers, while wolves were nearly killed off because people just didn’t like wolves,” he said.
When Europeans first came here, there were an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 wolves in the state, he said. By 1950, their numbers had decline to fewer than 50 wolves. By 1960, they were considered gone from the state.
The state bounty on wolves was eliminated in 1957 and they were first listed as a protected wild animal. They were listed as a state endangered species in 1967 and a federal endangered species in 1973.
“All of these reduced the killing of wolves and provided some level of protection,” Wydeven said. “That allowed the population in northeast Minnesota to spread out into northern Wisconsin. Around 1975, they started slowly coming back. In 1999, the population had increased to the point where they were listed as threatened, and in 2004 they were de-listed by the state and became a protected wild animal. In 2012, they were designated as a game species” in Wisconsin and the Legislature approved a wolf hunting season.
The wolf population rebounded to about 850 in 2012, declined to 810 in 2013, and to 660 in 2014. The decline has been mainly due to hunting, Wydeven said.
The federal listing of wolves “is a little more complicated” than the state listing, he added. Wolves were an endangered species from 1974 to 2003, were downlisted to ‘threatened’ in 2004, went back on the endangered list from 2007-08 due to lawsuits, “and we hope were finally delisted in January 2012. We’re at a point now where they are a state-managed species, which offers more flexibility.”
Since 1979, wolves in Wisconsin have been counted through live trapping and radio telemetry and with 1,300 miles of snow track surveys in the winter, using both DNR staff and up to 150 volunteers. The DNR also is looking for reports from people observing wolves in person and on their trail cameras, Wydeven added.
By 2012, there were about 200 wolf packs across northern and central Wisconsin. “We count wolves in mid- to late winter, but in the springtime that population probably doubles for a short time,” Wydeven said. “By the end of their first year, only 30 percent of the pups survive, and before the hunting/trapping season starts on Oct. 15 we’re probably losing about one-quarter of the adults each year.”
The cause of pup deaths is unknown, he said. “We don’t put radio collars on wolves until they’re six months or older.”
The average wolf pack is four to five animals, but they can be as large as 12, Wydeven said. Last winter, the Seeley Hills Pack had eight or nine wolves.
Wolves are very territorial; they defend their territories by scent marking, spraying urine, “which is like a ‘no-trespassing’ sign.” They also howl in the wintertime, and can be heard by other wolves from as much as six miles away. A typical territory is 50 square miles. On occasion, they will chase, injure and kill another wolf that has entered their territory.
In areas where wolves are not controlled by people, “the number one factor in wolf deaths is other wolves,” he added.
Wolves raise their young in a den that they usually dig in March. The pups are born in April.
A wolf will kill and eat 15 to 19 deer per year, plus more than 20 beavers, plus snowshoe hares when hares are fairly abundant, Wydeven said. He added that the carcasses of animals that wolves kill become food sources for other animals such as ravens, fishers, eagles, pine martens and bobcats.
By mid-June, the wolf family moves to a rendezvous site such as a beaver meadow, where the pups can romp around while the adults go out to hunt. A pack will use from two to 10 rendezvous sites throughout the summer until early October. Then the pups can move around with the rest of the pack.
When they’re about two years old, wolves will disperse to join another pack or start a new pack. “We’ve found wolves that have dispersed as much as 500 miles to northern Missouri or central Indiana,” Wydeven added.
“Wolves can be beneficial to the forest ecosystem,” he said. “Where they’ve been on the landscape for a long time, there is a higher diversity of forbs, deciduous trees and shrubs, including cedar and hemlocks. Where there is a higher deer population, there are more grasses and ferns, sedges.”
During a question-and-answer session with the audience of about 50, Wyden said that having management in place is a big factor in reducing the number of farms that sustain livestock losses to wolves.
The number of farm livestock killed by wolves peaked at 47 in 2010 and has been declining every year since then, he indicated. “We don’t find every animal that has been killed by a wolf.”
Until 2004 when wolves were delisted, “we had to move all the depredating wolves over to northeast Wisconsin,” he said. That led to at least two counties passing resolutions against this practice.
Losses of bear-hunting hounds and pets to wolves are another issue. Wolves are very defensive of their pups in July and August when bear dogs are being trained. As many as 23 bear hounds have been killed by wolves per year, Wydeven said.
Eight pet dogs were injured and five killed in 2010, “the highest pet losses we’ve had,” he said. “We do need to remove wolves when they behave in that fashion because they’re becoming habituated to humans.”
The state is required to compensate the owners of pets or hunting dogs killed or injured by wolves. In 2014, the state has paid $151,333 to owners of livestock or pets that were killed or were treated by a veterinarian due to injuries from a wolf. In 2013, the state paid out $139,174.
If a wolf is attacking a pet or livestock on their own property, people can legally shoot that wolf, he said. If there’s been a previous depredation problem, the landowner can get a permit to shoot a wolf coming onto his land. All those animals are turned over to the DNR. Also, government trappers are allowed to trap and remove wolves that have killed livestock. Trappers can do proactive trapping in areas experiencing perennial depredation.
‘There have been wolf attacks on humans, but we’ve never documented any in Wisconsin,” Wydeven said. “There have been two cases of people being killed by wolves in North America in the past 100 years: one was in Saskatchewan in 2005, where a geology student walked away from a camp and his body was found later. This was in a mining camp area where wolves fed on garbage that was dumped nearby and become habituated.
“In 2010 a teacher in Alaska was jogging near a remote village and saw some wolves. He panicked and ran away, which is not the thing to do if you’re confronted by a dog or wolf,” Wydeven added. The teacher was killed.
There have been a few people injured by wolves, he added. By comparison during the past 100 years in North America, 65 people have been killed by black bears and 20 people have been killed by cougars. More than 22 people each year are killed by dogs.
“They’re (wolves) a large predator and we have to respect them,” he said.
“Most of the time they’re very fearful of people.”
The state’s current management goal is 350 wolves outside Indian reservations, Wydeven noted. In 2012, the Legislature approved the first wolf hunting/trapping season in Wisconsin, with quotas set by the DNR. The hunter must report any wolf harvested to the DNR via telephone or email within 24 hours.
The difference between wolf management plans in Minnesota and Wisconsin is that “Our hunting seasons have been designed to reduce the wolf population, but in Minnesota they’re designed to provide a hunting and trapping opportunity, not to lower the population,” Wydeven said.
“Both states have similar levels of wolf depredation control, with government trappers and permits issued to land owners. They don’t monitor the population as intensely as Wisconsin does. We try to count individual wolves, as does Michigan. But Minnesota estimates the total wolf range, and based on how many known packs they have in a given area, they estimate the state’s population. But Minnesota has a lot more wolves — 2,200.
“We’re trying to come up with less labor-intensive methods of counting wolves, such as DNA surveys of scat and hair samples,” he added.
The Joseph Jenkins Lecture Series is sponsored by the Cable Natural History Museum.