Wolves occurred throughout Wisconsin prior to settlement (<1832) (Jackson 1961, Thiel 1993). Estimates of presettlement numbers vary, with the more credible being 3,000-5,000 (Wydeven 1993, Jackson 1961).

Prior to settlement, five species of ungulate were found in Wisconsin: bison, elk, moose, caribou and white-tailed deer (Schorger 1942, Scott 1939). All five species were potential prey for wolves (Mech 1970). Indeed, fur traders in the Wisconsin-Minnesota region between 1770 and 1830 documented wolf predation on bison and deer (Thiel 1993). By 1880, deer were the only wild ungulate species remaining in viable numbers within the state (Scott 1939).

Native Americans occupying Wisconsin at the time of European contact revered wolves as evidenced by their prominent role in culture and spiritual beliefs. Early fur traders were generally indifferent to the presence of wolves because they posed no threat, and were not considered valuable furbearers (Thiel 1993). Negative attitudes towards wolves prevailed among Europeans who settled in the Territory in the late 1830's. After the end of the Civil War, wolves were perceived as a menace to livestock and in response, the state legislature instituted a bounty in 1865 (Thiel 1993).

Wolves were exterminated from southern Wisconsin during the 1880's (Schorger 1953). The last wolf in central Wisconsin was killed in Waushara County in 1914 (Thiel 1993). By 1930, wolves were restricted to less than a dozen counties in northern Wisconsin. By this time, sport hunters also favored a bounty on wolves because wolves were considered unwanted competitors for deer (Flader 1974, Thiel 1993).

The wolf population declined from an estimated 150 in 1930 to less than 50 by 1950 (Thiel 1993). Wolf range was also reduced to less than 10% of the state (Figure 1). The last wolf packs in Wisconsin disappeared by 1956-57, just when the state legislature removed the timber wolf from the bounty. The last Wisconsin wolves were killed in 1958 and 1959 (Thiel 1993).

Between 1960 and 1975 the wolf was considered extirpated in Wisconsin (Thiel 1978). In 1973 wolves were afforded the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act. The Minnesota wolf population began expanding (Thiel and Ream 1995). In winter 1974-75, a wolf pack was discovered in the border area between Wisconsin and Minnesota south of Duluth-Superior (Thiel 1993). By 1980, five wolf packs were found in Wisconsin: four in Douglas County near the Minnesota border, and the other in Lincoln County (Figure 2)(Thiel 1993, Wydeven et al. 1995).

An intensive wolf monitoring program was instituted by the WDNR and the USFWS in 1979. During the 1980's wolf numbers fluctuated between a low of 15 animals (1985) to a high of 31 (1989) (Wydeven et al. 1995). High mortality rates (greater than 35% annually) were caused primarily by humans, with gunshot the leading cause of death (Wydeven et al. 1995).

Attitudinal surveys of deer hunters conducted in the early 1980's indicated that as many as 20% of Wisconsin gun-deer hunters in Douglas and Lincoln Counties harbored negative attitudes towards wolves (Knight 1985). In general, most (69%) of northern hunters believed wolves should not be eliminated from Wisconsin. Generally farmers, as a group, were less supportive of wolf recovery, and 50% of farmers in northern Wisconsin opposed wolf recovery in the 1980s. (Nelson & Franson, 1988) Recently surveys found that in 1997, 78% of hunters felt protection of wolves and other predators was important, and that only 20% opposed increasing the wolf population (See appendix H).

In 1986, the WDNR created a Wolf Recovery Team to develop a state wolf recovery plan. Public input was a critical factor in developing a plan that would lead to the successful recovery of wolves. The Wisconsin Wolf Recovery Plan was approved by WDNR in 1989, and has been the template, guiding managers in decisions that affect wolf recovery in Wisconsin (WDNR 1989, Thiel and Valen 1995). The plan's goals were to:

  1. support a minimum of 80 wolves for a minimum of 3 consecutive years;
  2. reclassify the wolf as state threatened; and
  3. contribute to federal downlisting of the wolf to threatened in the Great Lakes Region.

The recovery goal of 80 wolves was first achieved in 1995 when 83-86 wolves were counted. By 1999, the population was up to 197-203 wolves (Figure 3), distributed in 54 territories in 20 northern and central Wisconsin Counties (Figure 4). A Wisconsin Wolf Advisory Committee was formed in 1992 to oversee wolf recovery in Wisconsin, and develop a Wolf Management Plan with criteria for reclassification. The Wolf Advisory Committee conducted a public review of the Wolf Recovery Plan in 1994, and found public support for contiunued wolf recovery. The Wolf Advisory Committee began work on development of a new Wolf Management Plan in 1996.

The WDNR downlisted wolves to state threatened in 1999. The USFWS has announced plans to federally downlist wolves in Wisconsin and plans to complete the process in 2000 or 2001.