Paul A. Smith , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Two years removed from the last legal hunting and trapping season, Wisconsin’s gray wolf population increased to a record high of at least 925 animals in the winter of 2016-’17, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
The latest estimate represents a 6% increase from 2015-’16 and a 24% rise from 2014-’15.
Wolves in the western Great Lakes region have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since December 2014 when a federal judge ruled management plans in Wisconsin and other states weren’t sufficient to safeguard the population.
Wisconsin held wolf hunting and trapping seasons from 2012-’14, registering 117, 257 and 154 wolves, respectively. The wolf population showed a decline during the brief period of state management.
The latest Wisconsin wolf population data were released Thursday by the DNR.
The report showed Wisconsin had an overwinter minimum count of 925 to 956 wolves and 232 wolf packs in 2016-’17.
The average pack size was 3.9 individuals, up from 3.8 in 2015-’16 and continuing an increase toward the average of 4.0 seen prior to the state’s hunting and trapping seasons.
“The state’s wolves show signs of resuming the growth rates and pack sizes we saw prior to the fall of 2012,” said David MacFarland, DNR large carnivore specialist.
MacFarland said it was easier for an established wolf pack to add individuals than it was for a new pack to form. The average pack size decreased to about 3 wolves in 2014, according to DNR reports.
The department considers about two-thirds of Wisconsin as wolf range; the primary wolf habitat is found in the northern and central forest regions.
Wolf packs can form or disappear annually. The DNR lists 12 new packs for 2016-’17. The most southerly has a territory that straddles northern Sauk and Columbia counties.
One dispersing wolf also was recorded in Kewaunee County last year. The animal wore a radio collar, MacFarland said, and traveled across ice or water to Wisconsin from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The agency conducts wolf counts in winter when the animals are easiest to observe and track and when the population is at an annual low.
In addition to aerial and ground surveillance by the DNR, volunteer trackers monitor survey blocks. Last winter volunteers covered about half of the more than 14,000 miles of wolf survey work in Wisconsin, according to the agency.
The wolf population typically doubles in spring after pups are born, then declines through winter due to various sources of mortality.
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.
Last year a record 42 hunting dogs were killed by wolves in Wisconsin. Most of the incidents occurred as hunters ran hounds to train or actively hunt for bears.
State law requires payment of up to $2,500 per hunting dog killed by wolves; in 2016, the state paid out $99,400.
Wolves also were confirmed as the source of mortality for 31 bovines and two sheep in 2017.
By comparison, in 2015 the confirmed wolf depredations were 22 hunting dogs and 31 bovines and in 2014 it was 26 hunting dogs and 17 bovines.
So far in 2017 the DNR reports eight bovines, two sheep and one hunting dog has been reported killed by wolves.
Meanwhile in 2017 coyotes have been confirmed to have killed six bovines, one pet dog and one goat.
MacFarland said the state will continue to closely monitor wolf depredations. With the species protected, the agency has employed non-lethal tactics, including fencing, in an effort to reduce loss of livestock.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has formally appealed the 2014 decision that removed wolves from state management. Oral arguments were heard last October by a three-judge panel in a Washington, D.C. appellate court.
A decision could be released at any time.
The court earlier sided with Wyoming officials in a similar case.
Efforts in Congress have failed to pass legislation that would restore the ability of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan to manage wolves through public harvest seasons.
The species’ protected status has led the DNR to postpone its update to the state’s wolf management plan. MacFarland said the agency isn’t likely to release a draft plan until it has “greater clarity” on its management authority.