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WI: Wisconsin wolf population continues to rise above delisting goals

BROCK FRITZ Capital Newspapers

The population of wolves in Wisconsin is rising.

A survey conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from April 2019 until April 2020 found that the state’s gray wolf population increased by 13% in one year. The DNR’s overwinter wolf count rose from an estimated 914-978 in 2018-19 to 1,034-1,057 in 2019-20. The number of packs, which are primarily found in the northern part of the state, rose from 243 to 256.

“Wolves have a place in Wisconsin and the DNR is committed to keeping wolves on the landscape at biologically and socially-acceptable levels,” said Randy Johnson, a large carnivore specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, in September. “Important factors like prey abundance and vulnerability, disease and weather all influence how many wolves are on the landscape. Ultimately, the key information for management purposes is whether the population is stable, increasing or decreasing, and so our annual wolf surveys are designed to track those trends, and not to identify the drivers behind the trends.”

The increasing numbers aren’t a new trend, as Wisconsin’s wolf population has risen steadily since nearly being wiped out last century. The main driver in their recovery was the protections put in place by the federal Endangered Species Act in 1974.

“Along with that, education regarding wolves and how to coexist with them has played an important role and certainly will continue to be important into the future,” Johnson said.

The results are obvious when looking at year-to-year data of wolves in Wisconsin. The population, which was as low as 14 in 1985, really began to rebound in the early 1990s. It rose from 34 to 83 between 1990 and 1995, hit 248 in 2000, 435 in 2005, 704 in 2010 and 815 in 2012.

“Wolves are a native species in Wisconsin and their recovery from being effectively eliminated during the last century is a conservation success story and should be celebrated,” Johnson said. “Having wolves on the landscape is an important piece of the ecological puzzle, and they also provide a sense of wilderness that many people appreciate. Wolves are also of great cultural significance to the Ojibwe and other tribes in the state.”

However, there are some obvious consequences to having an increased number of carnivores in nature. Wolves can lead to the loss of livestock and domestic animals. There were about 90 confirmed wolf complaints in Wisconsin between April 2019 and April 2020, while there were fewer than 70 complaints the previous year.

“We’ve seen an increase in both conflicts with livestock and hunting dogs this year compared to last year, but overall they remain comparable to the average over the last five years,” Johnson said. “Regardless of the numbers, these events are tough and stressful situations for those involved.”

Therefore, the Wisconsin DNR has collaborated with USDA Wildlife Services to provide a wolf conflict program that attempts to address any issues.

Those issues are partially what led to the only recent downturn in Wisconsin’s wolf population. Delisted by the state as an endangered species since 2004, wolves were federally delisted on Jan. 27, 2012. Wisconsin designated gray wolves as a game species on April 2, 2012, and a harvest season began that same year to reduce population abundance in the state.

The 2012-13 season saw 117 wolves harvested by hunters and trappers. That number rose to 257 in 2013-14, while 154 were harvested in 2014-15. The harvest worked as intended, lowering Wisconsin’s wolf population to 660 in 2014.

The harvest ended there, as wolves were placed back on the federal Endangered Species Act in December 2014. The population bounced back immediately, reaching 925 by 2017 before rising to today’s estimated minimum of 1,034. The number of packs has seen a similar upward trend, while they have primarily stuck to the northern third of the state along with the forest region in central Wisconsin.

“Historically, we’ve seen wolves disperse into new habitats and establish wolf packs in new areas of the state as their population has increased,” Johnson said. “However, in the last few years this expansion has mostly seemed to stop as packs have for the most part filled all of the available suitable habitat in the state … Individual wolves are well-known to travel great distances as they set out to establish their own territory and therefore can show up just about anywhere in the state.”

A harvest season could eventually be back on the table, but the Wisconsin DNR currently doesn’t have the option to enact significant methods of management.

“The population currently exceeds all state and federal delisting goals and has done so for many years,” Johnson said. “Wolves currently remain on the federal Endangered Species Act and, therefore, the DNR has limited management authority. If and when wolves may be delisted in the future, the DNR is mandated by state law to hold a regulated wolf harvest season. At that time, DNR would work closely with many partners with the goal of managing the wolf population at a healthy and sustainable level while also trying to minimize negative interactions.

“I find general confusion that if wolves are removed from the federal endangered species act that they’ll be ‘unprotected.’ This is not true. Instead, delisting would allow the DNR to manage the species to best achieve biological and social objectives while minimizing conflicts. This is similar to how we manage many other species of wildlife in the state. This approach includes a regulated harvest season informed by science and research, as well as a fully integrated approach to dealing with wolf conflict and depredations, all while maintaining a sustainable wolf population in the state.”