Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wisconsin had a minimum of 914 wolves last winter, on par with the previous two years and the latest indication the population of the native carnivore may have leveled off, according to scientists with the Department of Natural Resources.
“We are calling (the state’s wolf population) healthy and stable at this point,” said Jane Wiedenhoeft, DNR assistant large carnivore biologist.
The 2018-19 overwinter tracking survey showed 914 to 978 wolves in the Badger State, 1% higher than the minimum count from the previous winter and 1% lower than 2016-17, according to data released Tuesday by the agency.
The work found 243 packs, up from 238. The five new packs were all found inside previously identified wolf range, Wiedenhoeft said.
The DNR’s report comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed delisting the wolf in the Lower 48 states.
A map showing wolf packs identified in Wisconsin in the winter of 2017-18. The most recent work, conducted in 2018-19, showed a very similar distribution, according to the DNR, but with a few additional packs within known wolf range. The updated map is expected to be available later in 2019. (Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
Since a December 2014 federal judge’s ruling, the wolf in most states, including Wisconsin, has been protected under the Endangered Species Act. The status prevents lethal control of wolves except when human life is threatened.
The Service is reviewing comments (see below to submit input), and a final decision isn’t expected until 2020, according to state and federal wolf specialists.
Wiedenhoeft said the DNR has decided not to update its wolf management plan, which was written in 1999 and modified in 2007, until the state has management authority over the species.
Further, she said there is no plan at the moment to conduct another public attitudes survey on wolves. The last was performed in 2014, when the minimum wolf count was 660.
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.
It’s unknown if public acceptance of wolves has changed in the last five years as wolf numbers have increased about 40%.
Wolves are native to Wisconsin but were extirpated by the 1950s through bounties, poisoning and unregulated hunting. The species began a recovery in the 1970s under protections of the Endangered Species Act.
The state’s wolf population was estimated at 25 in 1980, 34 in 1990, 248 in 2000 and 704 in 2010, according to DNR reports. The wolf population typically doubles in spring after pups are born and then declines through winter.
In its work to monitor the species in Wisconsin, DNR employees conduct aerial and ground surveillance each year. In addition, volunteer trackers assist the project in winter by monitoring survey blocks. Last winter more than 100 volunteers contributed to the work, according to the agency.
The wolf counts are conducted in winter when the animals are easiest to observe and track and when the population is at an annual low.
Wiedenhoeft said it’s too early to say whether wolves have reached biological carrying capacity in the state.
“We’ve still got some areas where we don’t detect wolves but the habitat and conditions are considered suitable,” Wiedenhoeft said. “It’s going to take more time to know.”
After seeing an uptick in distemper a couple of years ago, state biologists found no significant disease issues in the state’s wolves over the last year, Wiedenhoeft said.
The DNR paid $134,330 in wolf depredation payments in 2018, down from the $202,002 average since 2010. The largest payments last year were related to bear hound hunting and training, including $45,000 for hounds killed by wolves and $16,683 for veterinary bills for hounds wounded by wolves.
Depredation on calves ($38,984 for missing calves and $20,578 for dead calves) was second.
No sheep were depredated in 2018, but state and federal officials are investigating a May case in which 11 sheep or lambs were killed, 25 were missing and three were injured on a farm near Park Falls.
The DNR’s wolf information presented Tuesday was preliminary and did not include an updated map of wolf packs or details on wolf mortality, including illegal killings, over the last year. More complete information is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
The gray wolf is currently on the federal Endangered Species List, but in March the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the species in the Lower 48 states.
If delisted, Wisconsin and other states would be allowed to manage wolves under their state plans. In Wisconsin, that would likely include hunting and trapping.
In mid-May the Service extended its original public comment period and will now accept input through July 15. The proposal, as well as options to submit comments, can be found at fws.gov/home/wolfrecovery/.
Illegal killings and political resistance have endangered two species of wolves despite more than $80 million in government spending. (May 23) AP, AP
Become a wolf tracker
Since 1995, the DNR has used volunteers to conduct snow track surveys for wolves and other carnivores. The primary goals of the survey are to determine the number, distribution, breeding status and territories of wolves in Wisconsin and develop a sense of the abundance and distribution of other medium-sized and large carnivores in the state.
To participate, volunteers are expected to: attend a wolf ecology course sponsored by DNR, Timber Wolf Alliance or Timber Wolf Information Network; attend a track training course sponsored by the WI DNR; take a mammal track test; and agree to complete three surveys following DNR guidelines and submit their findings.
The program provides data to supplement DNR surveys and and offers the public an opportunity to help determine the status of forest carnivores in the state.
Classes are typically held in fall and winter. Visit dnr.wi.gov for more information.