By Paul A. Smith of the Journal Sentinel
Wisconsin had a minimum of 866 to 897 gray wolves in 222 packs in the winter of 2015-’16, according to a report released Thursday by the Department of Natural Resources.
The population represents a record high for the species in Wisconsin in the modern era and a 16% increase from 2014-’15.
The increase comes after the first year since 2012 in which the state did not have a wolf hunting and trapping season. A federal judge in December 2014 placed the wolf in the western Great Lakes region, including Wisconsin, under protections of the Endangered Species Act, effectively prohibiting lethal management by state officials.
The wolf population rise was anticipated by biologists.
“We thought there would be some bounce-back in pack sizes,” said David MacFarland, DNR large carnivore specialist. “And there are also a few areas of habitat that wolves are still filling out.”
Not only did the number of packs increase over the last year — to 222 from 208 — but the average pack size rose to 3.8 wolves from about 3, MacFarland said. About two-thirds of Wisconsin is considered wolf range, with packs concentrated in the northern and central forest regions. The most southerly packs are found in Adams and Juneau counties, MacFarland said.
The data were obtained in the annual wolf monitoring program conducted by DNR employees and volunteers. The work is done in winter, when the wolf population reaches a yearly low and the animals are easiest to track and count.
The 2015-’16 work included a record 17,759 survey miles. About 140 volunteers assisted with the project last winter, accounting for 47% of the survey miles.
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.
After the species was returned to state management in 2012, Wisconsin held its first regulated wolf hunting and trapping seasons from 2012 to 2014, when 117, 257 and 154 animals were registered, respectively.
Since the 2014 federal court decision, state wildlife managers have relied primarily on nonlethal means to control nuisance wolves, including the construction of 19 miles of fencing, and the use of electric fences, sound and lights and posting guard animals, according to the DNR.
At least one wolf was killed in 2015 by authorities in far northern Wisconsin with approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the wolf was observed “getting uncomfortably close to people and was getting near buildings and barns,” the agency said.
There were 78 confirmed or probable wolf depredations on livestock or pets in 2015, according to DNR reports, up from 53 in 2014. This year, through early June, there have been 23 confirmed or probable wolf depredations.
There is no record of a confirmed wolf attack on a human in Wisconsin, according to the DNR.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is appealing the federal court decision. Members of Congress have introduced measures to restore state management of wolves, too, though none has been successful.
In addition, two Republican lawmakers from northern Wisconsin announced their intentions last month to convene a Great Lakes wolf summit in September involving public officials, scientists and citizens from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan to push for state management of wolves.
“Our intent is to send a crystal clear, grass-roots message that it is irresponsible to ignore this issue any longer,” Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake) said in a statement.
The summit is tentatively scheduled to be held in mid-September in Rice Lake, according to Jarchow’s staff. Final details should be available in the coming weeks.
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.