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Knocking at the door

Knocking at the door

Wolf depredation on hunting dogs stirs controversy

By Giles Morris
Daily News Staff

Wisconsin’s wolves have been on and off the federal endangered species twice in the past two years and in the meantime their population continues to grow. With wolf advocates forcing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to abandon their latest de-listing rule in July, hunters are complaining that the state’s inability to control the population is dangerous.

The July/August bear hound training season has resulted in the deaths of 12 dogs so far according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) statistics.

Laurie Groskopf, a Tomahawk resident who had a hound killed by wolves during a hunting exercise, believes the problem of wolf depredation is broader than the department wants to admit.

Groskopf said the DNR has not been transparent about wolf kills, refusing to notify the public when pets are killed and minimizing the impact of wolf kills on livestock. She feels that the DNR’s policy of publishing only incidents involving hounds is disingenuous.

“They’re singling out bear dogs and making it a public relations issue,” Groskopf said. “They want people to think this is only about hunting.”

Groskopf said she has increasingly felt danger from wolf packs living near her home and she believes the state’s population estimate on wolves is low. She believes the state’s dwindling deer count is putting pressure on wolves as their numbers rise, making them more aggressive throughout their pack ranges.

Groskopf pointed to the experience of Tomahawk resident Adam Felser. On June 3 Felser was awakened from an evening nap by the distressed yelp of his three-year-old German shorthair pointer.

Felser, whose wife was working in the garden at the time, leapt up from the couch and out the door just in time to see his eight-year-old labrador retriever streak across the lawn and bulldoze a wolf that had the pointer pinned to the ground.

The shoulder charge from Felser’s lab surprised the wolf and the two dogs ran into the house, leaving Felser standing in front of the peeved predator.

“The damn thing took fours steps towards me, showed me its canine teeth, and then turned around and walked away,” Felser said. “This all took place in 20 or 30 seconds.”

Groskopf said Felser’s experience isn’t unique.

“That’s what’s happening and we’ve had the same experience,” said Groskopf. “They just stand there and look at you. They’re not afraid. I myself feel afraid while I’m in the woods. I see tracks every day on both sides of my house within a quarter mile.”

Groskopf’s own Walker hound was killed during an exercise.

When her hunting partner went in after the dog, he found wolves already eating the carcass. That type of visceral encounter with wolf kills carries an emotional impact.

Groskopf said the state received 167 wolf complaints in 2008 but only reported a fraction of them in news releases. The DNR publishes a list of all reported depredations annually.

In many ways, the debate over wolf kills comes back to the issue of wolf population estimates. The more wolves there are and the more widely they travel, the more encounters they are bound to have with people and domestic animals.

DNR wildlife ecologist Adrian Wydeven is responsible for managing the state’s wolf program. Wydeven said the past season’s winter wolf count puts the state population at around 626 wolves. Groskopf contests the claim.

“The count that Wydeven talks about is not the real count,” Groskopf said. “It’s the number of wolves they’ve actually counted. It’s a minimum number.”

Groskopf believes the DNR hasn’t been honest about the numbers of wolves, just as they misjudged the number of bears and deer in the state on other occasions.

Groskopf wants Wydeven and the state to start controlling the population, something they have limited ability to do when the animals are on the federal endangered species list. She feels the state’s decision not to join the latest wolf suit as a defendant is an expression of its priorities.

“Unfortunately, the attorney general and the governor have not signed on to the suit and to me that’s a big issue,” Groskopf said. “If we’re really serious — as Mr. Wydeven said — I would ask him why the state hasn’t signed onto the suit.”

Felser, who works as a logger, said his experience in the woods and the anecdotal reports of other loggers have led him to believe the DNR’s count is inaccurate at best.

“You take any logger in northern Wisconsin and they’ll tell you the same thing,” Felser said. “They’ll be eating lunch and they look up and there’s a wolf sitting there staring at them. The DNR lies about everything. They lied about the bear count and then came out last year and there were twice as many. How can you be that wrong?”

For Groskopf the issue comes down to the state’s willingness to control the wolf population and stick to its original target goal of 350 animals that was developed in 1999.

“Wolves are here to stay. I’m not an advocate of no wolves because I don’t think it’s possible,” Groskopf said. “But when you have a number that’s twice as large as the target population, then that’s a problem.”

Wydeven defends the DNR’s protocol concerning wolf kills and he said the winter count is the most accurate way to estimate the total population. When a wolf attack occurs he said the state is clear about what it needs to do.

“We want to find out the circumstances of the attack. We want to make sure the owner of the pet is compensated and we want to reduce the risk of attacks in the future,” said Wydeven.

Wydeven said the state did put control measures in place while it was able to.

“While we were federally de-listed in cases of pet dogs being killed, we were trapping the animals and issuing shooting permits to the owners, but under the current re-listed circumstances we don’t have that option,” Wydeven said.

In response to Groskopf’s concern that the DNR is singling out hounds as a way of playing down wolf kills of other animals, Wydeven said that it has been the DNR’s policy to issue press releases whenever a wolf depredation of a hunting hound has occurred because those attacks are often repeated and occur within a pack’s home range.

In cases of attacks on pet dogs, Wydeven said the DNR does not issue releases because they are normally isolated incidents that occur at the edges of a pack’s range. Wydeven said the public perception of wolf depredation is an important factor, but often is not based on facts.

“It’s often the case with wolves that impressions are more important than what’s actually happening,” Wydeven said. “As far as the risk factor for dogs, there are probably more risk factors involved. The risk for bear hounds is much greater from bears but that is an expected risk.”

Wydeven said most attacks on hunting hounds occur near wolf rendezvous sites. Rendezvous sites are areas where wolves leave their young during the summer hunts. They are characterized by areas of matted vegetation, dense deposits of wolf scat and often occur at forest edges and openings.

Wydeven said the past season’s winter count showed a population of 626 wolves in the state. That population can temporarily double in the spring, but about 70 percent of wolf pups perish due to predation or attrition.

“Our best guess is that it would be somewhat similar but we have seen an increasing trend in recent years,” Wydeven said.

Wydeven said there are about 10 packs of wolves operating in Oneida County and six in Forest County currently. According to statistics from the DNR’s Web site, the two counties have seen four fatal wolf attack incidents between them over the past two years. In Forest County, the most recent attack occurred on July 14, when U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services verified wolves injured four bear training hounds in the Town of Argonne in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The year before the same Great Pine wolf pack killed a 3-year old male Plott hound near Argonne.

In Oneida County, Wildlife Services verified that wolves, most likely from the Cassian pack, killed a 2-year-old redbone hound on July 3 and then on July 23, wolves from the Pelican Lake Pack killed a 10-year-old Walker hound on Oneida County Forest lands.

For Wydeven, the pattern of incidents points to the need for state control over the wolf population.

“This is one of the reasons we feel wolves need to be de-listed because we can more effectively manage wolves if we have control,” Wydeven said. “We’re less concerned about the total number of wolves than about the problems. There are some areas where wolves are a problem and the population needs to be kept low and other areas where the population would probably stabilize naturally.”

Wydeven said the DNR would re-examine its wolf management plan and update within the next year. He said population control measures could included federal trapping, issuing shooting permits to landowners, creating designated control areas, and allowing for some kind of citizens trapping program.

But ultimately, the state’s control depends on a federal court case.

“None of those things is possible when they’re an endangered species,” Wydeven said.

As for the state’s position on joining the lawsuit, Wydeven said the decision is not in his hands, but that it has a lot to do with resources.

“I think it’s just a matter of resources. Being a defendant on the suit requires lawyers’ time and resources and I guess that was part of the rationalization,” said Wydeven. “The state has been fully engaged in fighting the lawsuit and that’s just one aspect.”

DNR Attorney Tim Andryk said the state was fully engaged in the 2007 de-listing case after becoming a party through an “amicus” filing that allowed the issuing of briefs to the court but not the opportunity to make oral arguments in Washington.

Andryk said any decision to join any future case would rest with the governor’s office and involve both the attorney general’s office and the DNR. He said the decision to enter as a defendant would be a judgment call that depended on the resources it would require and the benefit of joining the case.

“Our interest is to be very involved and engaged with the de-listing of wolves in Wisconsin. If necessary we would consider entering the suit but that’s a judgment call that would involved the governor’s office, the attorney general, and our agency,” Andryk said.

Andryk said in the case of the suit filed in May that resulted in the USFWS withdrawing their de-listing the judge’s ruling was based on a procedural argument that did not rely on the quality of the state’s management plan or the validity of the USFWS’s arguments about the stability of the Great Lakes wolf population.

In the case, a group of plaintiffs, including the Humane Society of America, filed suit claiming the agency had not undertaken the required proposed rule and public comment period required under the administrative procedures act.

The plaintiffs asked Judge Paul Friedman for a preliminary injunction and the USFWS settled with plaintiffs, promising to review the case and undertake a proposed rule and public comment period prior to any subsequent effort to de-list the Great Lakes wolves.

According to USFWS wildlife biologist Laura Ragan, the decision to settle the case and withdraw the de-listing was motivated by a desire to speed the process to completion.

“We felt like going to court would actually delay the process further,” Ragan said.

Because of the settlement there is no pending lawsuit currently and the Great Lakes wolf population is back on the endangered species list while wolves in the Northern Rockies are, at the moment, off the list.

Ragan said the USFWS will gather new information from states about wolf populations and then move towards another de-listing publication in the fall that would include the appropriate public input procedures.

George Meyer, past DNR Secretary and current executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation (WWF), has watched the issue closely since the state first established a wolf management plan. Now the head of an organization that represents a range of sporting groups from around the state, Meyer has a unique perspective with which to view the moment.

“I think they have been responsible in being advocates in their work with the USFWS to de-list the wolves and in ordering permits to deal with depredation problems,” Meyer said. “I think there’s some things they’re doing wrong and a lot of things they’re doing right.”

Meyer’s main criticism of the way the DNR has handled wolf kills is that the department is not doing everything it can to be transparent.

“I do believe that Laurie is right that they have not been dealing with the publicity of wolf depredation as forthrightly as they used to,” Meyer said.

Meyer said the DNR’s stance in issuing alerts only in the cases of depredations involving hounds has the effect of pitting wolf advocates against hunters, instead of the desired effect of bringing the public into an important conversation.

“The public should be privy to all depredation information, not just to depredation of hunting dogs, but also of cattle and pets,” Meyer said. “Any time there’s a depredation, they should be issuing a release so it’s out there.”

Meyer also believes Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan should all sign on to any de-listing case as defendants to show that the issue of state control is a priority. He said the WWF supports a population of 500 wolves for the state, because that would allow for a buffer over the 350 individual ideal population level that could sustain a public harvest with stringent permitting requirements.

Meyer’s take on the subject points to the future of the debate. As the wolf population in the state grows, public sentiment is bound to play a bigger role in the discussion.

In the meantime, the DNR has to face criticism from both sides, from advocacy groups that reject the move towards population controls and from residents who are angry about wolf kills.

Meyer thinks the DNR should respond to the predicament by turning the public into an ally.

“They should be better educating the public of what the full impact of wolf depredation is. It’s important for the long-term management of the animals and for informing the public to prepare for the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Meyer said.