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Looking for the science in wolf debate

RON SEELY | Wisconsin State Journal

Wednesday morning, in a dim, fourth-floor hallway of the state Capitol, a group of people awaited the beginning of a hearing on a proposed wolf hunting season in Wisconsin.

It was an unexpected pleasure to stand there with them and listen to the conversation. That’s because the group included a handful of the most knowledgable wolf experts in the state, scientists who are probably most responsible for the return of the gray wolf to Wisconsin’s forests.

The gathering included Dick Thiel, the now-retired DNR biologist who almost single-handedly convinced the agency in the 1980s that wolves had returned to Wisconsin and who authored and for several years managed the state’s wolf recovery plan. Others in the hallway included Randle Jurewicz, also retired, who for many years managed wolf recovery for the DNR’s Bureau of Endangered Resources, and Tim Van Deelen, a UW-Madison wildlife ecologist who helped write the wolf management plan.

So, what was the topic of conversation in the hallway?

A movie, of all things. At issue was “The Grey,” a just-released movie starring Liam Neeson about a group of oil workers who survive a plane crash in remote Alaska only to be pursued and eaten, one-by-one, by wolves.

It is, Jurewicz said, a terrestrial version of “Jaws.”

The common lament in the hallway was that, after all these years of recovery work and of efforts to correct much of the wrong-headed mythology about wolves, along comes a movie that turns them into man-eating monsters. The truth is, wolves generally don’t eat people. In fact, according to Minnesota’s International Wolf Center, there are only two documented cases of wolves killing humans – an incident in 2005 in Saskatchewan and another at Chignik Lake in Alaska in 2010.

But the tendency to demonize wolves once again seems on the rise everywhere. A Western hunting and anti-wolf group called Lobo Watch runs a web page in which it calls for the extermination of wolves. And even here in Wisconsin – at the very hearing attended by the researchers last week – some proponents of a wolf hunting season seemed all too willing to return to stereotypes of the wolf as a bloodthirsty killer of livestock and deer to justify a hunting season.

All of the respected biologists who testified last week before the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, while supporting the idea of a wolf hunting season, also cautioned that more research is necessary to fully understand the impact of a hunt on a recovering population. During the quiet conversation in the Capitol hallway before the hearing, the researchers said that none of them had been contacted by authors of the bill.