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WI: The Wisconsin DNR has set a date for the return of wolf hunting season in fall 2021

Paul A. Smith Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The next Wisconsin wolf hunting and trapping season will begin Nov. 6, the Department of Natural Resources announced Friday.

Various interest groups, including animal protectionists, American Indian tribes, livestock producers and hunters and trappers, had wondered when the agency planned to reinitiate a public wolf harvest after a late October decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves in the Lower 48 states.

Wisconsin law requires the DNR to hold a hunting and trapping season if the species is not under federal protections.

The state is scheduled to assume management authority for wolves in early January.

Although the statute allows a wolf harvest season through February, the DNR was not prepared to implement one on such short notice this winter.

In a statement, the DNR said beginning the season next November would provide “adequate time not only to develop a science-based harvest quota but also to engage the public and tribal partners in the development of a season plan that adequately reflects the interests of diverse stakeholders throughout Wisconsin.”

The agency also said it would begin work to update its wolf management plan. The current plan, written in 1999 and tweaked in 2007, has been in need of revision for many years but the DNR has resisted work on it as the species was under federal protection.

The agency said it would work “collaboratively and transparently to create a new wolf management plan to reflect our increased understanding of the biological and social issues relevant to wolf management. The new plan will ensure sustainable management of Wisconsin wolves for the future.”

One significant change in wolf management will occur in early January, however, as lethal control of wolves near farms and other depredation sites will once again be allowed.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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The DNR works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services staff on an integrated wolf conflict abatement program, including nonlethal and lethal options. Lethal control is prohibited when the wolf is under ESA protections.

Following delisting and until the official hunting and trapping season goes into effect, it remains unlawful to shoot a wolf unless there is an immediate threat to human safety. Or, if on private land, a wolf can be shot and killed if it is in the act of killing or wounding a domestic animal.

In the most recent period of state control (2012-14), hunters and trappers killed 117, 257 and 154 wolves, respectively, over the three seasons. The DNR expressed its objective at the time to “put downward pressure” on the wolf population but did not have a stated population goal.

A December 2014 decision by a federal judge put the wolf back under protections of the ESA.

Years have passed and the wolf population has increased, but the DNR has yet to establish a target or new plan for the species in the Badger State.

The population of gray wolves in Wisconsin has increased to a modern-era high of 1,034 in late winter 2020, according to estimates from the Department of Natural Resources.

A 2014 Wisconsin survey showed a majority of state residents supported maintaining a wolf population “at current levels.”

This year, the Wisconsin wolf population was estimated at 1,195 animals and 256 packs, according to the DNR, both modern-era highs for the species in the state.

Many conservation organizations and individuals have asked the DNR to conduct another public attitude survey about wolves now that the species has increased to record levels in the state.

The agency did not immediately respond Friday to requests on the topic.

George Meyer, former DNR Secretary and current executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said he understands the DNR’s decision to wait until next November for a hunting and trapping season.

“My personal judgment is a wolf harvest season is a sensitive and controversial matter, and one of great public interest, so it has to be well thought out in terms of setting the goals,” Meyer said. “You don’t want to be shooting from the hip and make a mistake.”

Meyer said it was paramount for the agency’s credibility to include a wide variety of stakeholders in the process. 

In its statement, the DNR said it has successfully managed gray wolves for decades and “will continue to follow the science and laws that influence our management.”

“All wolf management, including hunting and trapping, will be conducted in a transparent and deliberative process, in which public and tribal participation is encouraged,” the agency said.