Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wisconsin had a minimum of 905 gray wolves and 238 wolf packs last winter, according to the 2017-’18 tracking survey by the Department of Natural Resources.
The data show a 2% decrease in wolf numbers from the previous year, and could be a sign the population of the apex predator is leveling off.
“It’s possible wolves have filled the suitable habitat in Wisconsin,” said Scott Walter, DNR large carnivore specialist. “It’s been anticipated the population would stabilize, but it’s one year of data and we’ll need more before we can make such a conclusion.”
The DNR on Tuesday released limited, preliminary information from the 2017-’18 wolf tracking work.
The report did not include a map of wolf packs or details on wolf mortality over the last year.
The agency conducts wolf counts in winter when the animals are easiest to observe and track and when the population is at an annual low.
About 50 wolves are currently fitted with radio collars in Wisconsin, Walter said.
In addition to aerial and ground surveillance by the DNR, volunteer trackers monitor survey blocks. Last winter the work covered 16,133 miles in 166 survey blocks, up from about 14,000 miles the previous year, according to the agency.
The wolf population typically doubles in spring after pups are born and then declines through winter.
Wolves are native to Wisconsin but were considered extirpated by the middle 20th century due to unregulated hunting, poisoning and bounties.
Recolonization of wolves from Minnesota into northwestern Wisconsin began in the mid-1970s, and by 1980 five packs established territories, according to DNR reports.
Aided by protections of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, wolf numbers in Wisconsin increased to 25 in 1980, 34 in 1990, 248 in 2000 and 704 in 2010, according to state estimates.
Management of the species has been the subject of contentious debates and frequent lawsuits, resulting in a see-saw of ESA listing and delisting.
Following a 2012 delisting, Wisconsin held wolf hunting and trapping seasons in 2012-’14, registering 117, 257 and 154 wolves, respectively.
The wolf population showed a decline during the brief period of state management.
But in December 2014 wolves in the western Great Lakes region were placed back under protections of the ESA when a federal judge ruled management plans in Wisconsin and other states weren’t sufficient to safeguard the population.
Wolf numbers increased over the next three years, including to a record high 925 to 956 wolves in 2016-’17.
The higher wolf population has been linked to increased depredation.
Wisconsin paid out a record $256,148 in wolf damage payments in 2017, according to the DNR, up from $200,505 in 2016. The previous high was $214,794 in 2012.
In data kept since 1985, last year’s payments set record highs for wolf depredation on hounds ($138,800 for 58 hounds), hound veterinarian bills ($12,069 for 12 dogs) and sheep ($14,608 for 24 sheep).
But payments for wolf depredation on calf, missing calves and cattle dropped last year by 16%, 30% and 58%, respectively.
Walter said human tolerance is a key to wolf management decisions.
“There are areas of Wisconsin wolves could likely do well, including Dane County with its high deer population,” Walter said. “But there would likely be so many conflicts with humans it’s not suitable habitat for wolves.”
By any measure, the state’s wolf population is well above the 100 set by the federal government as a recovery goal.
Walter reiterated the agency’s position that the wolf should be returned to state management.
“There is no biological reason for wolves to remain on the endangered species list,” Walter said. “Federal delisting would allow more flexibility in dealing with issues like wolf depredation of livestock and pets and divert important endangered species funding and resources to the conservation of species that are truly at risk.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to delist the wolves once again. And some members of Congress, although they have repeatedly failed, continue to express an interest in crafting legislation to delist the species in our region.
Eventually the wolf will once again come under state management. But when it does, I fear state officials won’t be as ready as they should be.
They’ll have the latest wolf tracking information. But they’ll be years behind on something arguably more critical to wolf management – public attitude data.
The most recent such work was conducted in 2014 when the state had a minimum of 660 wolves.
Among survey respondents in wolf range, 53% wanted wolf numbers maintained at current levels or increased in their county of residence, while 18% wanted wolves decreased and 15% wanted them eliminated.
Outside of wolf range, 56% wanted wolf numbers maintained or increased statewide.
Now that the state has had at least 900 wolves for two consecutive years, how does the public feel about the species? Is the current level just as acceptable as 660 was in 2014?
Or has public support for wolves waned?
The DNR has been waiting until state management is restored before it rewrites its outdated wolf management plan.
While the wisdom of that decision can be debated, this cannot: As a protector of the public trust, DNR must use the latest, best science to set Wisconsin wolf population goals and craft the next wolf plan.
The social science in this case is at least as important as the biological.
An updated public attitudes survey on wolves in Wisconsin should be on the agency’s “must do” list in the near future.
Should the DNR fail to complete one, the job of defending its wolf management goals will become significantly more difficult, and even more likely to require legal representation.