Right now the gray wolf is federally protected in Wisconsin. But a bill making its way through Congress aims to lift that protection here and throughout the lower 48 states.
Some people view the gray wolf as an important part of a functioning ecosystem. Others consider wolves a looming threat.
In the early 1900s, a bounty system was created in Wisconsin to drive down the number of wolves. By 1960, there wasn’t a wolf to be found on the state’s landscape.
In 1974, the newly-enacted Endangered Species Act took the gray wolf under its protective wing.
Then, after the population grew and stabilized, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the wolf’s protective status.
Wisconsin launched its first wolf hunt season in 2012.
The divisive debate continued in the hunt's second year when hunters were allowed to take along up to six dogs. Lucas Withrow of Brodhead, Wis. found the policy to be perfectly sensible.
“The function would be to make sure that we use and utilize all opportunities to harvest the quotas that we are responsible for harvesting for keeping the population stable and healthy,” Withrow says.
Critics, like Milwaukee-based environmental attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin, found the practice inhumane and unethical.
“Allowing dogs to get torn up by wolves for the enjoyment of their owners seeking to pursue wolves in the fashion violates animal cruelty laws,” Sinykin says.
The state's wolf hunt didn't last for long. Days after the 2014 hunt, a Humane Society of the United States challenge ended with a U.S. District judge decision to return Great Lakes gray wolves to federal protection.
Wolf populations have remained strong, not only in the Great Lakes states but in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of reviewing the wolf’s status and whether it’s time to lift Endangered Species protection. Some elected officials in Washington D.C. see no need to wait. Last week the House passed a bill to eliminate legal protections for gray wolves across the lower 48 states.
Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI), the bill’s chief sponsor, says wolves are too plentiful and threaten livestock.
“And frankly I believe that our states are far more in tune in understanding the ecosystem of their state than bureaucrats in Washington. So, I would far rather empower Wisconsin to allow us to successfully manage a gray wolf population which allows for a healthier ecosystem,” Duffy says.
Adrian Treves teaches environmental studies at UW-Madison and has extensively studied wolves and wolf policy. He says states are already managing wolves.
“Counting them, enforcing protections against illegal killing, generally protecting habitat that wolf need. So states are managing wolves for the federal government. The things they cannot do is kill or harass or capture them under the protections of the Endangered Species Act. The states are not allowed to do that,” Treves says.
He thinks the population can be effectively managed without a wolf hunt and says that's better for a balanced ecosystem.
Treves says the wolf is a species native to the state. He says remove a species and a negative ripple effect impacts the entire ecosystem.
The U.S. Senate has not yet taken up the wolf delisting bill.
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