A Langlade County hound hunter convicted in 2020 for killing a black bear during the Summer bear hound training season without a license, was one of hundreds of unlicensed wolf hunters joining in Wisconsin’s three-day wolf slaughter, that saw over 170 gray wolves killed with the use of hounds. Tyler Belott pled no contest to a charge of illegally killing a bear on July 5, 2019, which resulted in his hunting privileges being revoked for three years.
But that hasn’t stopped the convicted poacher from continuing to join in the hunting of bears, bobcats, coyotes and now wolves in Wisconsin. Belott also traveled to Wyoming in December 2020 to participate in a mountain lion hunt with another Wisconsin hound hunter, Brian VanDeWall. Traveling to another state to hunt when your hunting privileges have been revoked in your own home state is a violation of the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, of which Wisconsin and Wyoming are both members.
On February 24, 2021, Belott posted pictures on Facebook of a large Wisconsin hunting group with three dead wolves. In the picture, Belott is holding one of the dead wolves by its leg. On February 25th, Belott posted a screenshot of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (WDNR) then tally of the over quota wolf hunt, with his caption, “If you don’t like this, please hit the unfriend button.” In the following comments, Belott says to another wolf hunter, “nice to see we had almost all the kills in zone 4 lol.” The post attracted 32 other comments, all celebrating wolf hunters pushing the kill far beyond the legal quota.
After rushing into a poorly organized recreational wolf hunt, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources must now answer for why the hunt went so horribly over quota and why so many unlicensed individuals like Belott were allowed to participate. The public was told the day the hunt began, that the wolf kill quota had been reduced from 200 to 119 to account for tribal allotments, but when all was said and done, the final kill tally was 216, almost double the intended kill (82%). Yet, the example of Tyler Belott shines a light on the widely documented case of Wisconsin wolf hunters calling on each other to not register their kills, or delay registration in order to extend the length of the hunt.
Wisconsin’s wolf hunt law states that hunters must be given 24 hours notice by the WDNR before a wolf hunting zone becomes closed to hunting due to its quota being reached. For example, in Zone 2 where Wolf Patrol was monitoring hound hunters and trappers, on February 23rd, the quota of 18 wolves was reported surpassed by one wolf by midday. That initiated the Zone closure, yet hound hunters and trappers continued legally pursuing wolves another 20 hours until the Zone officially closed on February 24th, the next day at 1000am. Such a delay in closures combined with an effort by successful wolf tag holders to delay or simply not report their kills largely contributed to the almost double legal kill of 216 wolves.
The truth is that while the WDNR wasn’t ready to conduct a February wolf hunt, special interest groups like Hunter Nation and Wisconsin’s hound hunters could have cared less. With no scientific justification or biological argument, Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association member & state Senator Rob Stafsholt lobbied the Natural Resources Board to implement an immediate wolf hunt. When pro-hunt advocates were told by WDNR’s legal representatives that such a hunt would violate the state’s own laws, the Kansas-based trophy hunting group filed a lawsuit that forced the state into the February hunt, which was planned with less than two weeks notice. For years, pro-wolf hunt advocates had decried the role of judges in determining the fate of wolf hunting in Wisconsin. In the end, it was that very tactic that hunt advocates used to achieve their objective of a February 2021 hunt, rather than wait for the State mandated November 2021 wolf hunt.
With no biological precedent for the hastily organized slaughter so late in the winter or even a qualified WDNR Large Carnivore Specialist (the current position is held by Randy Johnson, is a mountain lion biologist) Wisconsin’s DNR is already preparing for the next recreational wolf hunt in eight months, one that won’t last only three days, but four months. With as much as 20% of Wisconsin’s estimated wolf population already eradicated in just three days, one can only guess how high over quota the Fall 2021 Wisconsin wolf hunt will be. Of note, 99 of the 216 wolves killed were females, many its presumed were pregnant as the hunt fell towards the end of the gray wolf breeding season.
Wolf Patrol documented the wolf hunt in northern Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, an area with a high wolf density and as a result, a long history of deadly conflicts between wolves and bear hunting hounds. Wolf Patrol monitored the three-day hunt on national forest lands where last Summer, three bear hunting hounds were killed by wolves while being trained to chase bears in Wisconsin’s three month unregulated bear hound-training season, when no license is required, as is the case during the actual Fall hunting season.
On the first day of the hunt, February 22, 2021, Wolf Patrol encountered an 8-truck wolf hunting party with at least 3 rifle-carrying hunters aiding the hunt from snowmobiles. We were at the North Otter Creek State Natural Area, within the WDNR Wolf Caution Area where the three bear hounds were killed by wolves. That is where we encountered approximately 12 people as they returned from a successful hound hunt for wolves. For over an hour, we had sat in our trucks listening to the hunter’s orchestrating the wolf hunt over their radios, before they arrived back at their vehicles with their kill.
As the hunt drew to a close, one wolf hunter was describing the scene on the ground as his hounds chased a wolf through private cabin properties closed down for the winter. The dogs were tiring and cornering the wolf in what the hunter called, “a vicious battle.” While the wolf tired from the hours-long hunt, the pursuing hunting hounds were replaced with fresh hounds. Each snowmobile in this wolf-hunting property was equipped with a small dog box on its back, thus allowing hunters to intercept an exhausted hound and replace it with another.
Wisconsin’s wolf hunting and general hound hunting regulations allow for up to six dogs at a time to be in pursuit of a wolf or any game animal. Many more dogs can be on the ground, on leashes or in their boxes, but only six can be involved in the actual pursuit at one time. Another wolf hunting party was encountered by Wolf Patrol in the national forest the following day, on February 23rd, off of County Road “O” just outside of the Wolf Caution Area. This second hunting party had 13 vehicles with 10 of the trucks outfitted with partially full dog boxes, all were actively participating in the hunt, strung out along a long dirt road, watching for the wolf to cross followed by their hounds.
Wisconsin’s wolf and general hound hunting regulations allow for unlicensed individuals to aid an actual wolf license holder (or any other hunter) with the pursuit, baiting and trapping of their prey. Thus, it was perfectly legal to see literally dozens of people with dozens more hunting hounds in the pursuit of one wolf, as Wolf Patrol documented on both February 22 & 23, 2021 in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. This is why hound hunters were responsible for over 80% of the legal kill.
In addition, during our observation of one wolf hunting party’s return to their vehicles at the Otter Creek trailhead, one non-licensed hunter was recorded saying that “they had shot at the wolf four separate times” indicating that others were not only assisting in the support of the hunt with additional hounds, but also discharging firearms at a game animal they do not personally have a license for. Wisconsin hound hunters like Tyler Belott and Andy Nowkowski also bragged on Facebook about the ability to participate in multiple wolf hunts, despite neither hound hunter having an actual permit to kill a wolf.
While just over 2,300 wolf licenses awarded to non-tribal hunters, (some reports are that many were not purchased by those who successfully drew them in the lottery) WDNR reported soon after the hunt that most wolves had been taken with the aid of hounds. When you consider that each hound hunt for a wolf in Wisconsin involved a dozen or more individuals, the actual number of wolf hunters pursuing just 113 animals was easily in the thousands. Using multiple packs of fresh hounds equipped with GPS collars that allow hunters to watch remotely as wolves are run down with snowmobiles driven by armed men, the issue of fair chase was not a factor in the February 2021 wolf hunt.
Wolf Patrol also monitored two separate traplines operated by at least three individuals in portions of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Forest and Florence counties. On February 21st, 2021, the day before the hunt, our hunt monitors located a fresh deer carcass that had been dragged off the forest road with a sled. The next day, the carcass was gone, but in the immediate area were three wolf traps, all baited with portions of the deer carcass as well as butter, oil-soaked bread an an artificial scent lure.
While the WDNR’s 2021 Wolf Hunting Regulations clearly state that animal by-products cannot be used to hunt or trap wolves, Wolf Patrol was told by the regional WDNR conservation officer that emergency rules had allowed for the use of carcasses and animal by-products to trap wolves despite the glaring contradiction in the regulations made available to the public just days before the hunt.
In another portion of the national forest on February 24, 2021, the last morning of the hunt, Wolf Patrol discovered another wolf trap baited with a beef calf leg. When we drove down the next forest service road to the east, we discovered the remainder of the beef calf carcass placed just yards from three wolf traps. Even under the Emergency Rules cited by the WDNR’s conservation officer it clearly states, “The disposal of the carcasses of domestic animals is regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and they are not legal for use as bait for trapping wolves.”
Yet in a recorded conversation with Wolf Patrol, the WDNR conservation officer charged with enforcing Wisconsin’s wolf hunting and trapping regulations insisted that the use of livestock carcasses to trap wolves and other predators in Wisconsin was perfectly legal.Ironically, one of the argued justifications for this haphazardly organized hunt was to prevent future livestock depredations by wolves, yet in Forest and Florence counties none have been reported, but livestock carcasses were used to bait wolves by licensed trappers.
Link to Wisconsin’s 2012 Emergency Wolf Hunting Rules:
Wisconsin’s hound hunters and other anti-wolf advocates believe there are thousands more wolves than the WDNR annual Large Carnivore Survey suggests, which is just over 1,100 (previous to the hunt). Toward that end, they want numbers brought down to the decades old original wolf recovery goal of 350 animals. Some still argue that they were eradicated for a reason and they should be again.
What’s certain is that the state of Wisconsin is unqualified to manage its own wolf population as the February 2021 wolf hunt clearly demonstrated. The hunt went against every promise made to the public in December 2020, when WDNR officials issued a press release and posted on their website that no wolf hunt would be carried out without a new management plan, tribal obligations honored, and a diverse group of stakeholders formed as a new Wolf Advisory Committee. None of these things happened. Instead we saw a rush to authorize a slaughter during a breeding season with literally thousands of unlicensed individuals allowed to participate and aid in the killing of a recently federally delisted endangered species.
Wisconsin’s November 2021 wolf hunt will only be worse. The season will encompass Wisconsin’s 8-day firearm deer season, allowing the tens of thousands of deer hunters entering Wisconsin’s Northwoods to add wolf to their list of prey. In addition, after November, it’ll be hound hunters again that heavily target wolves until the end of February. In the February 2021 wolf hunt, trappers and hunters using electronic callers accounted for just 5% of the total reported kill of 216 animals.
It’s also important to point out that Wisconsin’s hound hunt for wolves overlaps the already legal hound hunt for coyotes in Wisconsin. Throughout the winter hound hunters in the state are already pursuing coyotes with hounds with no season or bag limit. This allows any illegal hound hunt for wolves in Wisconsin to simply be explained to a game warden as a coyote hunt in order for it to be perfectly legal, unless a dead wolf is present.
Without greater public oversight and demand for accountability, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources offers little to no resistance to the demands of sport hunting special interest groups. The February 2021 wolf hunt is just the latest example of how the state will manage the recently federally delisted gray wolf. It’s now up to the rest of us to get involved in the planning process for the November wolf hunt and demand that hunters dependency on snowmobiles, back-up hunters and hounds be regulated. In the absence of responsible State management, we are witnessing politically influenced policies intent on the extirpation of the gray wolves from Wisconsin once again.