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WI: Best science needed for Wisconsin wolf plan

Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Gray wolves are back in the headlines in Wisconsin.

And once again, the charismatic and controversial species is at the center of action generated outside state borders.

But the recent news highlights the need for Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials to update something entirely within its control — the state’s wolf management plan.

First some background. You likely remember a December 2014 decision by a federal judge in Washington, D.C., that placed wolves in the western Great Lakes region under protections of the Endangered Species Act and ended Wisconsin’s wolf hunting and trapping season.

The action was the result of a lawsuit brought by animal welfare and environmental groups that argued wolves hadn’t sufficiently recovered and the states’ management plans were insufficient to protect the species.

This time the wolf is the subject of proposed legislation in the nation’s capital to override the judge’s ruling.

Over the last week, companion bills were introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate to return wolf management to state control in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Wyoming.

Although similar legislation was floated over the last two years, the odds of this effort succeeding are higher, in part because of its bipartisan nature.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) introduced S.164 in the Senate. His colleague, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), signed on as a co-sponsor.

Rep. Collin Peterson (Democrat from Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District) authored H.R. 424 in the House. Wisconsin congressmen Sean Duffy (R-7th district), Glenn Grothman (R-6), Ron Kind (D-3) and James Sensenbrenner (R-5) are co-sponsors.

In plain language, the legislation would remove wolves from federal protection and allow the state agencies to manage their wolf populations.

In a Tuesday statement, Johnson said the bills do not modify the Endangered Species Act and would not prohibit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from returning the wolf to federal protections if it deems federal protections are needed.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group, labeled the legislation the “War on Wolves Act” that would allow “trophy hunting and trapping of the species” in four states.

“A new congress has resurfaced an old vendetta against imperiled wolves,” the organization said Wednesday in a statement.

The wolf evokes strong emotions among humans and is arguably the most loved and hated native animal in North America.

But what is beyond debate is the growth of wolf numbers in Wisconsin and other parts of the U.S. since the Endangered Species Act was initiated in 1973.

The wolf population in Wisconsin was estimated at 25 in 1980, 34 in 1990, 248 in 2000 and 704 in 2010, according to DNR reports.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 declared wolves in the western Great Lakes had met recovery goals and removed federal protections from the species. Wisconsin then held hunting and trapping seasons for three years, killing 117 wolves in 2012, 257 in 2013 and 154 in 2014.

The population has grown in the two years since state control was removed. Wisconsin had a minimum of 866 to 897 gray wolves in 222 packs in the winter of 2015-’16, according to a DNR report released last summer.

The population estimate represented a record high for the species in Wisconsin and a 16% increase from 2014-’15.

The growing consensus that the wolf has recovered in Wisconsin is reflected in the bipartisan nature of both bills introduced this month in Washington, D.C.

“Without a doubt, the population is in good shape in Wisconsin,” said Adrian Wydeven, retired DNR wolf biologist and coordinator for the Timber Wolf Alliance at Northland College in Ashland. “It doesn’t need protections of the Endangered Species Act.”

Whether this year or at another future time, the focus of wolf management will shift back to state officials. Since state law requires a “public wolf harvest,” the DNR will implement a hunting and trapping season.

The question then will be: What should be the target wolf population? How many wolf permits should be issued?

After the federal judge’s decision in 2014, the DNR suspended its update to the state’s wolf management plan. The active plan was established in 1999 and updated (but not changed) in 2007. It set a statewide wolf population target of 350 wolves.

But it was written when there were fewer than 250 wolves in the state and even wolf experts didn’t anticipate the kind of population growth that has been documented over the last decade, Wydeven said.

Further, the 350 was never meant to be a cap.

In one of its strongest acts of science in recent years, in 2014 the DNR issued the results of a public attitudes survey on wolves.

Among survey respondents in wolf range, 53% wanted wolf numbers maintained at current levels or increased in their county of residence, while 18% wanted wolves decreased and 15% wanted them eliminated.

Outside of wolf range, 56% wanted wolf numbers maintained or increased statewide.

At the time the survey was administered, Wisconsin had a minimum of 660 wolves, according to the DNR.

What is the public attitude toward wolves in 2017?

The DNR has no current plans to repeat the social science survey, said Dave MacFarland, DNR large carnivore specialist. And the department is waiting to know if it will be allowed to manage wolves before completing work on the next Wisconsin wolf plan.

The last Republican-controlled Congress couldn’t pass a wolf bill. This one may well be different.

When the time returns for state management of wolves, the DNR owes it to all citizens of the state — wolf lovers and haters alike — to base its plan on the best available science.

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