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Rural residents believe they’re seeing wolves

DNR: No wolf sightings in county have been confirmed

Written by Josh Lintereur

Marlene Schoen had her doubts when her boyfriend thought he saw a gray wolf outside their rural Sheboygan home last month.

That is, until several days later when she was out walking her 8-month-old puppy, and the animal was standing between Schoen and her front door.

To Schoen — who’s seen her share of coyotes in her North 47th Street subdivision, just off Superior Avenue — there was no doubt she was staring at a wolf.

“It was smart enough to know where I came out of my house, and it was waiting for me when I came back with my puppy,” said Schoen, 59, who scared the animal away by firing a cap gun she carries to ward off larger, unleashed dogs.

Several of Schoen’s neighbors have since reported seeing what they believe was a wolf too. The alleged encounters are fairly common in Sheboygan County, according to state wildlife officials, but whether any of those sightings have been the real thing is unclear.

Dan Weidert, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources in Plymouth, said there’s yet to be a single confirmed wolf sighting here in modern times, though it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a stray wolf or two moving through the area.

“Let’s put it this way, there could be,” Weidert said.

Wisconsin’s gray wolf population is limited mostly to the northern third of the state, and parts of west central Wisconsin, though wolf pups will sometimes be pushed out of the pack, which can lead the animals southward in search of new territory.

If wolves are seen here, the animals are most likely passing through, as there’s not adequate wilderness in Sheboygan County to sustain a wolf pack, according to Weidert. Unlike coyotes, wolves are not well adapted to live near humans.

“Generally speaking, southern Wisconsin, even with the Kettle Moraine, it’s still not isolated enough to support breeding populations of wolves,” Weidert said. “They’re just not that tolerant of human interaction. They’d as soon be elsewhere than where humans are.”

Whatever the case, people here frequently encounter what they believe are wolves, as Weidert said he gets at least one call a month, between fall and spring, regarding a possible wolf sighting. The hard part is that without photos or ideal conditions to find tracks, it’s tough to verify.

At the Badger Hatchery agriculture supply store in Howards Grove, delivery driver Bruce Manz said he’s talked to at least two rural landowners who said they’d seen wolves on their property this winter.

One was seen watching horses on a farm near Rhine Center. The other was seen by a hunter along the Pigeon River, north of Howards Grove.

“Your hear reports they’re coming south, slowly but surely,” Manz said. “They’re out there.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month removed wolves in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota from the federal endangered species list. Starting today, those states can manage their wolf populations on their own.

The state’s wolf population now tops 650, according to DNR estimates, with Wisconsin being one of about a dozen states where wolves exist in the wild.

State wildlife officials say wolves are shy and generally avoid humans. There has been only one case of a healthy, wild wolf killing a human in North America in the last 100 years, according to the DNR. Nonetheless, wolves are predators and need to be respected.

While there hasn’t been a confirmed wolf sighting in Sheboygan County, there have been at least two in Manitowoc County, including an incident several years ago where hunters there thought they’d shot a coyote and later found out it was a wolf.

Weidert thinks it’s unlikely Schoen and her neighbors saw a wolf, as the sighting was in a residential area near Interstate 43. The more plausible explanation is that they saw a coyote, or a dog hybrid. Oftentimes, a first-year wolf pup and a coyote are very similar in appearance.

“The likelihood of a wild wolf in that area is very low,” Weidert said.

But neighbors there feel otherwise.

One man, who declined to provide his name, said he walks that area every morning and regularly sees foxes, turkeys and deer. On a walk last month, what he first thought was a large German shepherd came trotting out of the woods. As it came into focus, he became convinced it was a wolf.

“I thought, ‘That’s no dog,'” the man said.

If any of those sightings were in fact wolves, Weidert said it’s likely the animals have already moved on.

“What happens is they’re seen and then never heard from again, because they’re on the move to another part of the state,” he said.