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WI: Summit-goers pray to make wolves prey again

Nora G. Hertel
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

CUMBERLAND – Politics is the source of and solution to wolf problems facing Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, said participants in a conference Thursday dominated by those who want freedom to kill the animals.

Politicians, farmers, hunters and others interested in the canine predators assembled for a Great Lakes Wolf Summit in northwestern Wisconsin to talk about attacks against domestic animals and the case to get wolves off the federal endangered species list.

Republican state lawmakers Sen. Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst and Rep. Adam Jarchow of Balsam Lake planned the summit. They hope control of wolves will return to state governments. Wisconsin already has a law that previously allowed farmers to kill threatening wolves and permitted hunters to harvest a batch of wolves each year.

But as long as wolves are considered endangered, killing them is illegal unless it’s for personal protection.

Between 2012 and 2014, while wolves were not considered endangered, Wisconsin had three hunting seasons and eliminated 528 wolves. In 2014 a federal judge returned the animals to the endangered species list, ending the hunting seasons.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson introduced a bill to delist wolves in the Great Lakes region and Wyoming. That policy is now mixed in with the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2016, which is being negotiated in Congress.

Not many wolf advocates attended the summit. The Humane Society of the United States issued a statement calling the event “one-sided.” A couple of supporters at the summit posed challenging questions to presenters and argued wolves have an important place in the Great Lakes ecosystem.

“A few wolves are OK,” said Don Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and a speaker at Thursday’s summit. “They’re part of the system.”

Roughly 4,000 wolves live in the Great Lakes region. Peay and most others at the summit want to manage the wolf population by killing some off.

And politics is the key. Sportsmen should lobby legislators by showing up to forums in their camouflage and blaze orange and pressing political candidates on the wolf issue, Peay said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Janesville Republican, could also help the case, said Ted Lyon, the keynote speaker. “You’re telling me he can’t get that done? He could get that done like that,” Lyon said with a snap of his fingers.

Lyon is a Democrat, attorney, former Texas state senator and conservationist. He wrote “The Real Wolf,” a book about the impact of wolves on large game and livestock.

Wolves can take down any ungulate — a category that includes deer, cows and sheep — in the continent, Lyon said. “They are the ultimate predator on the face of the earth.”

Complaints of attacks on domestic animals have been rising with the wolf population, said David Ruid, wildlife biologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He teams up with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and helps manage complaints of wolf attacks on farms and ranches.

Wolf depredations don’t have a big economic impact, Ruid said. They aren’t affecting the cattle industry’s bottom line. But they are causing great hardship for farmers in prime wolf territory.

“These things are occurring on the local family farm,” Ruid said.

Sandra Gutt said wolves killed her dog in her yard at 8 a.m. one day in July. She says she feels trapped on her property, and that this is not the first time she had seen wolves in her area. Jacob Byk/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

It’s not just death of livestock that’s a problem for farmers. Wolves will harass animals, causing livestock to damage their fences, spook easily or slow their eating because they’re on guard, Ruid said.

“Our industry is under a duress up there,” said Mark Liebaert, who raises cattle and is chairman of the Douglas County Board. He rotates his cattle through a grazing system.

“Not only do I have death losses. I have weight-gain losses,” Liebaert said. If an animal loses 60 pounds of meat because it’s not eating at a regular pace, that’s a loss of $240, he said.

The state reimburses people for pets, livestock and hunting dogs killed by wolves. So far this year 32 hunting dogs have been killed in Wisconsin by their fiercer canine cousins. Ruid called it a perfect storm, as the rising population of wolves conflicts with bear hunting in northern Wisconsin. Bear hunters can bait their prey, a practice that draws other wildlife, including wolves who will kill bear hounds.

Speakers at the summit agreed Thursday that wolves no longer need federal protection.

“It’s our position that wolves are no longer in danger,” said Kurt Thiede, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin DNR. “We have met our obligation under the Endangered Species Act.”

Humane Society officials disagree.

“The ecological and economic benefits brought by wolves — reducing deer-auto collisions, stemming the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease and fostering tourism — are documented and undeniable,” said Melissa Tedrowe, Wisconsin state director for the Humane Society of the United States, in a Wednesday statement. The statement didn’t elaborate on those points, but multiple reports suggest wolves and other predators help reduce the spread of disease among their prey.

The Humane Society and other wildlife protection organizations filed a lawsuit that led to a judge returning Great Lakes wolves to the endangered list. Wisconsin officials and farmers and hunters can’t circumvent that federal ruling.

Congress will likely debate the proposed law to get wolves off the list after the November election, said Sen. Johnson’s senior legislative assistant, Thomas Petri. The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill, and Petri’s hopeful the wolf provision will survive as part of a compromise.

In the meantime, Tiffany encouraged people at the summit to write letters to the editor and push to delist the wolf.

“There’s ‘antis’ (people against delisting the wolf) out there that are going to writing letters as we speak,” Tiffany said. “It’s got to be driven from the grass roots.”

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