By John Myers
Wisconsin’s annual winter wolf survey found an estimated 880 wolves were roaming the state earlier this year, up 16 percent from 2015 and the most wolves ever counted in the state in modern times.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported Thursday that there were an estimated 222 packs and more than 30 lone wolves roaming the forested parts of the state.
By far the most wolf packs, and most wolves, are concentrated in Douglas, Bayfield and Ashland counties.
Wolf surveys are taken in winter at the low point in the animal’s population. New pups born this spring will have significantly added to that number, but many also will perish in coming months, bringing the population back down.
It’s the second straight year of significant increase in Wisconsin’s wolf numbers, likely due to a federal court order banning wolf hunting and trapping in the western Great Lakes that was imposed in December 2014.
That court order is being challenged, and lawmakers have threatened to pass federal legislation allowing hunting and trapping in the region. But those efforts so far have slowed, and wolves remain off-limits under Endangered Species Act protections.
Wolves were open for hunting and trapping in Minnesota and Wisconsin from 2012 through the autumn of 2014, with hundreds of wolves taken each year, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said their numbers had recovered more than enough to remove them from four decades of federal protections.
But a federal judge sided with wolf supporters who argued state wildlife agencies were allowing too much wolf killing too fast, and that excessive hunting and trapping could put the animals back into the same danger of extinction they were in when they were listed as endangered in the 1970s.
The current population is more than double Wisconsin’s official goal for its wolf population of 350.
The winter wolf survey was conducted thanks to the help of more than 100 volunteers, DNR officials noted.
“Volunteer trackers are a critical component of Wisconsin’s wolf monitoring program, and department staff relies upon their efforts to ensure we have high-quality data,” said David MacFarland, DNR large carnivore specialist.
Wisconsin’s native wolf population was strong until the predators were shot, trapped and poisoned into extirpation by the mid-1900s. Under federal protections, the animals began to trickle back into northern Wisconsin from Minnesota in the late 1970s. Their numbers have slowly increased to today’s record high.
Minnesota’s wolf population remains generally stable, although wolves are having to roam farther to find their favorite food, the Department of Natural Resources reported after its most recent wolf population estimate made last year. The Minnesota DNR said the 2015 survey showed an estimated 2,221 wolves in 374 packs across the northern half of the state. That’s down about 8 percent from the 2014 estimate but close enough to call stable, the agency noted.