Paul Smith | Outdoors Editor
Madison – The state’s management of the gray wolf has been dominated by protection of the federal Endangered Species Act for nearly all of the last 40 years.
That officially changed last Friday, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service returned the species to state management.
In the last six days, the wolf became classified as a protected wild animal in Wisconsin; the state began issuing wolf kill permits to landowners and farmers who incurred depredation to livestock; and a wolf hunting and trapping bill was introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature.
If you detect pent-up desire for action on wolf issues, you’re not imagining things.
“It might seem fast, but we’ve been waiting for years to be able to do more to control wolves in Wisconsin,” said Rep. Roger Rivard (R-Rice Lake). “This bill didn’t happen overnight.”
Rivard and Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) are co-authors of Assembly Bill 502, legislation they’re calling the Wisconsin Wolf Management Act.
The bill had a hearing at the Capitol on Wednesday before the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.
The bill spells out provisions for a “public wolf harvest.”
“We want to carefully manage the burgeoning population of wolves,” Suder said. “This is not an open season. We’ve been working very hard with the DNR to put the proper controls in place.”
Modeled after rules used for bear hunting in Wisconsin, the bill would limit the number of tags. Hunters and/or trappers could accumulate preference points to increase the odds of drawing a tag in future years.
It would cost $10 to apply for a wolf license. If selected through a drawing, it would cost state residents $100 and non-residents $500 to buy the license.
According to the initial draft, the wolf hunting and trapping season would run from “Oct. 15th to the end of February the following year.”
The bill would also divide the state into four wolf management zones. Hunters could use bows, crossbows or firearms. Bait, dogs and electronic calls would be legal, too. Trappers would be allowed to use snares or leg hold traps.
Night hunting would be allowed after the traditional gun deer season ended in November.
Hunters or trappers who killed a wolf would be required to register it by phone.
The DNR would retain authority to close the season with 24 hours notice in order to “effectively manage the wolf population in a zone.”
Fifteen groups or individuals testified or registered in support of the bill, including the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, National Rifle Association, Wisconsin Cranberry Growers Association, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, United Sportsmen of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association.
It was opposed by two individuals and the Humane Society of the United States.
The Department of Natural Resources testified “for information only.” But Kurt Thiede, administrator of the agency’s Land Division, called it a “historic day.”
“With the introduction of AB 502, and our discussion of a potential wolf harvest season, we acknowledge that the gray wolf population has improved in our state beyond multiple recovery standards and is a remarkable success story of endangered species management,” Thiede said.
Thiede said the department had not determined the maximum safe harvest level for wolves in the state. Wisconsin had an estimated 800 wolves at the end of last winter.
But he said it was crucial to be conservative in the first years of state wolf management.
“We need to be able to assure we maintain a sustainable population of wolves and that wolves are viewed as a valued species on our landscape,” Thiede said. “It is in everyone’s interest that we effectively manage wolves so we are able to retain management of these majestic creatures.”
Thiede asked for eight months (twice as long as the legislators had requested) to allow the agency to review the economic impact, assess the latest population information and develop permanent rules for the potential hunting and trapping season.
Several people recommended modifications.
Dick Thiel, one of the state’s foremost wolf authorities and recently retired from the DNR, recommended the number of wolf management zones be increased to allow more flexibility. He also advised against night hunting.
“These are not raccoons,” Thiel said. “It’s asking for trouble to pursue them after dark.”
Thiel advocated for a season that ran in December and January and ended before the annual late winter wolf population survey.
He also recommended that hunters or trappers be required to bring harvested wolves to registration stations.
Such a measure would allow biologists to gather valuable information on sex, age and condition of wolves as well as provide hunters and trappers with a CITES tag for transport of the animal outside the state.
Randy Jurewicz, also a recent DNR retiree, worked on wolf management for 31 years and is intimately familiar with damage claims.
He recommended the bill be redrafted to make sure money from the Endangered Resources fund is not used for wolf damage compensation now that the species has been delisted.
“If you don’t change that, it will devastate the Endangered Resources fund,” Jurewicz said.
Tim Van Deelen, an associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin, testified in favor of the bill.
“I am a fan of Wisconsin’s conservation legacy, I support hunting as a means to achieve wildlife management goals and I support having a public wolf hunt in Wisconsin,” Van Deelen said.
Van Deelen said there should be two imperatives for state wolf management: to minimize depredations and to avoid population declines that would trigger Endangered Species Act protections.
Van Deelen, Thiel and Randy Jurewicz helped write the state’s 1999 wolf management plan. At the time, the recovery goal was considered 350 wolves. All three testified that 350 should be seen as a minimum number, not a target.
“The last thing we want is to drive this species down to the point the federal government will step in,” Thiel said. Alyson Bodai, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, opposed the bill.
“The state’s principal goal now should be the resolution of wolf conflicts with farmers, not hunting and trapping of wolves,” Bodai said. “As long as wolves remain delisted, the state can authorize owners of livestock and domestic animals to address bona fide incidents of depredation. This, we believe, will largely resolve the issue of wolf depredation, which has been underlying wolf conflicts for many years.”
Bodai urged development of non-lethal techniques to discourage wolves from depredating livestock.
The bill is attracting bipartisan support; several amendments are expected in coming days and no one at the hearing doubted it would pass the Assembly.
Legislation alone might not be enough to allow for wolf hunting and trapping in Wisconsin.
Thiel stressed the importance of moderation in wolf issues.
“I’ve been in the wolf business for 40 years,” Thiel said. “Some portions of this will offend people. To underestimate these opponents is to invite litigation in the state and federal courts that could lock up wolf management efforts for more years. And that would only increase the problems that we hope to begin addressing this year.”
Suder and Rivard said amendments will be drafted in coming days. They hope to have the bill passed by the Assembly and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker by April.
Sandhill crane hunting bill: The wolf bill isn’t the only legislation being offered to increase the number of hunted species in Wisconsin.
Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc) is working on a sandhill crane hunting bill. It would require hunters to complete a sandhill crane hunting education course.
The DNR would have authority to limit the number of cranes harvested through a permit system. As of Wednesday, the bill was assigned Legislative Reference Bill number 3173/3.
Ice fishing clinics: Kids age 15 and under can discover the fun of ice fishing at the 21st annual Kids’ Ice Fishing Clinics on Saturday at park ponds and lagoons in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties.
The free clinics will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Participants receive instruction on the proper use of equipment and techniques, knot tying and ice safety. The clinics last 45 minutes and begin every hour on the hour starting at 9 a.m., with the last one starting at 2 p.m.
If the weather and ice conditions allow, kids will be able to fish after receiving the classroom instruction.
“These clinics are an excellent way to introduce youngsters to the sport of fishing and a perfect opportunity for families that want to enjoy some of the outdoor recreational activities that Wisconsin has to offer,” said Matt Coffaro, urban fish biologist for the DNR. “It’s the dedication of volunteers from the local fishing clubs that make it all work.”
The clinics are a cooperative effort of the Wisconsin Council of Sport Fishing Organizations, Milwaukee County Parks, the Milwaukee County Parks Fish Hatchery, the Waukesha County Parks System and the Department of Natural Resources.
No pre-registration is necessary. All equipment and snacks will be provided. Local fishing club members will provide angling instruction.
“It’s all free,” Coffaro said. “We just ask people to dress for the conditions and have a good time.”
Coffaro said it would be a “game-day decision” with a clear bias toward safety as to whether anglers would be allowed on the ice. But the classroom instruction will occur regardless of weather and ice conditions.
For more information call the DNR Urban Fishing Hotline at (414) 263-8494 or Coffaro at (414) 263-8614.
The locations for the clinics and the sponsoring fishing clubs are: Humboldt Park, 3000 S. Howell Ave., hosted by the Great Lakes Sport Fishermen & Milwaukee Casting Club; McCarty Park, 8214 W. Cleveland, hosted by the Southside Sportsmen Club and the Sunnyside Rod and Gun Club; McGovern Park, 5400 N. 51st St., hosted by the Okauchee Fishing Club; Scout Lake, 5902 W. Loomis Road, hosted by Walleyes Unlimited; Wilson Park, 1601 W. Howard Ave., hosted by the Wisconsin Fishing Club; and Menomonee Park/Lannon Quarry, Townline Road, (one-half mile north of Good Hope Road, Menomonee Falls), hosted by the Badger Fishermen’s League.
McCarty, McGovern and Scout Lake parks are wheelchair-accessible sites.