Paul A. Smith Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Gray wolves in Wisconsin this year have caused a sharp increase in conflicts with livestock as well as reports of threats to human safety, according to data from the Department of Natural Resources.
From Jan. 1 through July 1, the state had 64 reported and 34 confirmed wolf conflicts, said Brad Koele, DNR wildlife damage specialist.
This year’s numbers compare to 37 reported and 16 confirmed wolf conflicts over the same time period in 2019, as well as 39 and 18 in 2018 and 37 and 20 in 2017, respectively.
In addition, five reports of wolf threats to human safety have been recorded this year, up from one in 2019, three in 2018 and one in 2017.
Among the most recent cases were Tuesday, when U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services verified wolves depredated six sheep on a farm located in Hansen Township in Wood County as well as verified a human health and safety conflict in Bayfield Township, Bayfield County.
The wolf in Bayfield has been observed on multiple occasions over the past 2 weeks in an individual’s yard and reportedly shows little fear of humans.
No wolf attack on a human in Wisconsin has been documented in modern history, according to state records.
But the increase this year in reports of threats to human health and safety should be taken seriously, Koele said.
“It’s rare for a wolf to be coming into a yard like this and showing no fear and not responding to attempts to scare it off,” Koele said.
Among the other cases involving reports of wolf threats to humans this year, one In Burnett County was near the site of livestock depredations and wolves were observed within 20 feet of a house.
And this summer a man training hounds for bear hunting in Douglas County had one of his dogs killed by wolves. After the incident, he was followed by wolves as he walked back to his vehicle.
As to the overall increase in wolf conflicts, it’s possible the animals are becoming used to non-lethal diversion tactics such as flagging, Koele said.
“Numbers can fluctuate from year-to-year due to a variety of reasons,” Koele said. “But it appears some of our standard abatement tactics are no longer working.”
Flags, noise, lights and other non-lethal techniques are used to help keep wolves away from livestock operations.
Koele said research continues to find better forms of non-lethal wolf abatement.
Since Dec. 2014, wolves in Wisconsin have been protected under the federal Endangered Species List. Only non-lethal means – except to protect human health if attacked by a wolf – may be used while the species is listed.
Although officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have indicated several times over the last year they plan to delist wolves, the agency has yet to take action.
The DNR has yet to issue its annual minimum wolf count.
The report, normally issued in late spring or early summer, has been delayed this year for a number of reasons, including personnel changes and the use of a new app to report tracking information.
However, data over the last three years has indicated a stabilization of wolf numbers in the state.
In 2018-19, Wisconsin had a minimum of 914 to 978 wolves, 1% higher than the minimum count from the previous winter and 1% lower than 2016-17, according to data from the DNR’s winter tracking survey.
The work is done when wolves are easiest to track and count and when the population is at its annual low. According to wolf experts, the number of wolves roughly doubles after pups are born in early spring, then drops through the year due to various causes of mortality.