Wisconsin Wolves Returning Home

Battle Axe Road CNNF

Last week, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released the results from one of the country’s most thorough wolf and large carnivore surveys conducted annually by a state wildlife agency. An estimated 866-897 wolves live in 222 packs in the northern two-thirds of Wisconsin, according to the DNR’s latest 2015-16 winter survey. That’s 16% more wolves than were counted last year, this latest survey being only the second since hunting and trapping was again outlawed in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan in December 2014. Last year, the DNR survey reported 746-771 wolves in 208 packs.

Wolves Detected 2015-16

Wolves detected in winter 2015-16.

Gray wolves returned to Wisconsin in the late 1970’s, recolonizing traditional territory from resilient populations in Minnesota that survived the campaign of eradication in the 1900’s. Since then, wolves have reclaimed their rightful place in Wisconsin’s ecosystems as an apex predator feeding primarily on whitetail deer. Of the nearly 900 wolves in Wisconsin, an estimated 28 live outside of packs as loners, but others are naturally dispersing to suitable unoccupied former habitat not only in Wisconsin, but in Michigan and maybe one day other states where wolves presently remain extinct. All of this is successful natural occurring wolf reintroduction that Wolf Patrol supports and the reason why we exist, to protect newly returning wolves to Wisconsin and other areas where they were previously exterminated.

Pack and lone wolf summaries

Pack and lone wolf summaries, winter 2015-16.

Gray wolves in Wisconsin were wiped out in the early part of the 20th Century, as part of an extermination campaign that spread across the entire nation. Since their return, DNR biologists and volunteers have carried out annual winter track surveys to estimate the number of wolves residing in Wisconsin. Last Winter, Wolf Patrol joined the DNR’s team of volunteers conducting winter surveys for wolves in the northern forests, with our crew carrying out six separate surveys in two tracking blocks between December 2015 and April 2016.

Wolf Scat 2016

Wolf scat found on road during survey.

Every year, Wisconsin’s Volunteer Carnivore Tracking Program recruits hundreds of citizens, some in favor of wolf recolonization, some opposed, but all are people who care about the environment and enjoy recreating in Wisconsin’s wide expanse of public lands. Interested individuals and organizations must first attend two mandatory tracking classes that teach people about wolf history, biology, and the DNR’s role in facilitating wolf recovery following their return. Before completing the training, everyone must also pass a track identification test.

Wolf tracks found during survey.

Fresh wolf tracks found after a rainstorm.

Wolf Patrol’s involvement in the annual wolf count is because we believe those who care about wolves should be involved with the DNR and their public policy making as much as those who presently advocate for a return to wolf trapping and hunting in Wisconsin.

In 2012, the first year killing wolves became legal, 117 wolves were killed in Wisconsin by mostly trappers but also hunters. In 2013, another 257 wolves were killed, including 35 that were legally run down with hounds. In 2014, before the federal courts could stop it, another 154 wolves were killed with guns, traps and hounds.

Hound hunters monitored by Wolf Patrol brandish their trophy, south of Clear Lake, WI on 12/03/14.

Since the cessation of recreational wolf trapping and hunting in Wisconsin, Wolf Patrol has focused our attention on illegal threats and legal hunting practices that threaten gray wolves in the state. The return of the wolf is not welcomed by many in northern Wisconsin. Since wolves were placed back under federal protection in 2014, Wolf Patrol has documented numerous threats on social media from northern Wisconsin hunters who advocate for illegal wolf killing. Such threats were again posted following the June 15th, 2016 DNR meeting that announced the latest wolf count, calling for “we the people” to take the matter into their own hands, or “SSS: shoot, shovel and shut-up”.

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Comments following June 16th DNR meeting on Facebook site, “Wisconsin Wolf Hunting”

But poaching is not the only threat to wolves in Wisconsin, much of the hatred directed towards wolves is related to their killing of domestic animals. While there has never been a documented case of a wolf attacking a human in Wisconsin, wolves regularly kill dairy and beef cattle, in 2015, 50 cows and calves were reported killed by wolves with a total of $122,581.84 being paid out by the state in compensation for those livestock losses.

2015 Depredation Compensation DNR

Breakdown of domestic animals killed by wolves in 2015 and the amount of compensation paid.

Preventing livestock depredations by wolves in northern Wisconsin has proven to be effective through the increased use of non-lethal controls. This year DNR officials reported that on farms where guard animals, fencing, fladry and other non-lethal methods are employed, there’s a marked decrease in wolf caused depredations. DNR continues to host workshops to teach livestock producers in wolf country better animal management practices. Other non-lethal measures implemented to address wolf conflicts in Wisconsin 2015 included the trapping, collaring, and relocation of three wolves that had entered a captive deer farm. The wolves were released within their pack’s territory and no conflict persisted.

2015 Wolf Abatement DNR

Non-lethal measures employed on northern Wisconsin farms to prevent wolf depredations.

In 2015, there were two instances reported where lethal measures against wolves were implemented to address human safety. On a dairy farm, one wolf was killed after repeatedly visiting areas of the farm with humans. The other lethal response followed two reports from the Colburn Wildlife Area in Adams County, where hunters twice reported wolves approaching them without fear. One hunter fired his pistol, reportedly wounding the wolf though no body was ever recovered. DNR attempted trapping the suspected wolves, but abandoned the effort when it was determined that the wolves had moved out of the area and no longer posed a human threat.

2015 Depredation Compensation DNR

Breakdown of domestic animals killed by wolves in 2015 and the amount of compensation paid.

Other domestic animals are killed by wolves in Wisconsin each year, but the lion’s share are hunting hounds that are released to follow scents of prey animals across wolf territory. Each year, hound hunters in Wisconsin loose thousands of hunting dogs onto public and private lands to chase for bear primarily, but also coyote, bobcat, fox and raccoon (and in 2013 & 2014, wolves too). And every year, numerous hounds are killed and sometimes eaten by wolves who see the other canines as trespassers.

hunting dogs killed by wolves

Wisconsin DNR statistics on wolf-killed hunting dogs.

In 2015, 22 hunting dogs were killed by wolves in Wisconsin, eleven of those were bear hunting hounds, seven of which were killed in an area the DNR designated as a “Wolf Caution Area (WCA)” following the first depredation. DNR was unable to explain the marked increase in wolf-killed hunting hounds over the last three years, but Wolf Patrol believes the conflict is rooted in the DNR’s extremely liberal hound hunting regulations, which do not take into account the ecological impact of running packs of dogs through expanding wolf territory, especially in Summer months when pack members are especially protective of their young pups.

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Wisconsin DNR Wolf Caution Area, Bayfield County, 2015.

Like livestock producers, hound hunters are also compensated for wolf-killed dogs. Up to $2,500 is paid out to hound hunters, from the state’s sale of “endangered species” license plates. In 2015, a total of $58,224.70 was paid out to hound hunters, some of whom released hounds in the same WCA where other dogs had already been killed. While livestock producers who report conflicts with wolves are expected to address factors that contribute to depredations, no such system exists for hunters who legally hunt with hounds. The DNR does not prohibit the hunting with hounds in areas where wolves have already killed hunting dogs, this problem alone may be exacerbating the conflict between wolves and dogs.

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Bear hunters training hounds to chase bear, Polk County, July 2015.

The use of hunting hounds in WCA’s is only part of the problem. In one of the tracking blocks assigned to Wolf Patrol, one such WCA was delineated after nine hounds were killed by wolves in 2015. Last Summer, in the same area, Wolf Patrol’s investigations revealed over 19 bear baits in the WCA, with many more in the surrounding national forest lands in Bayfield County.

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Waffle cones, cherry chips and other sugary foods were filled in this particular bear baiting log.

Researchers studying the conflict between wolves and hunting hounds in Wisconsin surmise that in addition to bears, wolves are also becoming habituated to feed stations intended for bears and in turn, defend them as feeding sites of their own. Many bear hunters release their dogs near bear baits where they can easily pick up a scent trail from a visiting bear. Hound hunters track their dogs using GPS collars attached to them, as the animals travel far out of the hunters view. This is when most are killed by wolves.

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Wolf Patrol member documenting bear baiting on Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest July 2015.

Since mid-April 2016, when bear baiting is legal to begin in Wisconsin, Wolf Patrol has been visiting Wolf Caution Areas to record the number of active bear baiting stations on public lands. Our investigation is intended to gather data and information that can be provided to resource managers, with the hope that legal hunting activities such as bear baiting and hound hunting that contribute to conflicts with wolves, will be better regulated. Wolf Patrol is also asking for an outright ban on bear baiting and hound hunting within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, where there is a history of wolf conflicts, and within all designated Wolf Caution Areas.

Bear Bait Six

A typical bear baiting area in Polk County, Wisconsin, April 2016.

Wolf Patrol’s 2016 investigation into bear baiting and hound hunting on public lands needs your support! While we work cooperatively with Wisconsin DNR, many in the bear hunting and hound hunting community do not want our crew to uncover the truth about baiting and hounding wildlife on public lands. In a signing ceremony at this year’s annual gathering of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, Governor Scott Walker signed into law The Right to Hunt Act, which was penned specifically to address the existence of Wolf Patrol. We believe every human being has the right to access public lands with the intent of seeing for themselves how their lands and wildlife are being managed, and towards that end, Wolf Patrol will continue its efforts to protect wolves and other predators from legal and illegal threats.

WP Truck in Moquah

On Patrol in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, May 2016.

For More Information on Wisconsin’s Volunteer Tracking Program and upcoming training sessions, please visit the DNR’s website: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/volunteer.html

For More Information on the conflict between bear hunters and wolves:

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0061708

To Contribute to Wolf Patrol’s campaign, please visit wolfpatrol.org or our Gofundme site:

“Great Lakes Wolf Patrol”

 

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