Opinions vary dramatically, including among scientists on Wisconsin's proposed wolf management plan
The gray wolf was native to the Wisconsin landscape long before statehood, but as European settlers arrived, the wolf was considered a threat, not a resource.
The last known wolf in Wisconsin was killed in 1959. The species began its gradual restoration in the mid-1970s. Its recovery is considered a conservation success story.
Wildlife biologist Adrian Wydeven was part of that story and spent more than two decades leading the effort from 1990-2013. During Wydeven’s tenure the DNR crafted the original wolf management plan, that was in 1999.
In 2012 a new state law required an annual hunting season unless the gray wolf is federally protected. The species’ status has ping-ponged on and off the Endangered Species list, but recently, a February 2022 court order placed the gray wolf back under protection.
Wydeven thinks elements of the plan the DNR is now proposing puts the wolf’s future management on the right course. “Number one that rose to the top right away was the department getting away from a numeric goal,” Wydeven says.
The 1999 plan set a maximum population goal of 350 wolves. “It was based on understanding of what the carrying capacity was in the 1990s and our understanding of the population viability,” Wydeven says.
The DNR proposes shifting to what’s called adaptive management to balance a healthy and sustainable wolf population with other “objectives." Those include addressing and reducing conflict between wolves, humans and their livestock.
"[That’s] the kind of things that many of us were pushing for that focus more on ecological benefits of wolves instead of just trying to go toward some arbitrary number,” Wydeven says.
Wydeven acknowledges the tension around eliminating the 350 limit.
“There’s a lot of groups that want the department to cap the wolf population at that level, which would mean eliminating wolves from two-thirds of the wolf range in Wisconsin,” he says.
Another area of tension has been folding the perspective of tribes into the management plan.
Wydeven applauds its proposal to create buffers around tribal lands. As a result, hunters could harvest a limited number of wolves within those zones. Wydeven says the measure would better protect wolves in key habitats and respect tribal sovereignty.
“Tribal lands are totally closed to hunt, but there’s probably no pack that lives exclusively on tribal lands; they extend out beyond tribal lands. So it provides much better protection for packs living on reservations,” he says.
Now retired, Wydeven serves on Wisconsin's Green Fire science advisory council, which submitted a list of recommendations that Wydeven hopes the DNR will incorporate in the final plan, including:
“The plan talks about issuing not too many permits so that it can be a more satisfactory hunting opportunity and trapping opportunity for the participants,” Wydeven says.
But fewer hunting permits could result in a longer season that could potentially extend into the wolves breeding season.
“Plus the regulations allow the use of dogs the first Monday after Thanksgiving and the later the season extends, more areas would be exposed to use of dogs. There’s a risk it would also be disruptive of wolf breeding activities,” Wydeven adds.
That’s what happened during Wisconsin’s most recent hunt. It took place in February 2021 and exceeded the quota by 83%.
UW-Madison Nelson Institute professor of environmental studies Adrian Treves’ believes the DNR is underestimating the impact of that hunt. “The 2022 estimate of state wolf population is vastly overestimating the number of wolves in the state,” Treves says.
The DNR’s estimate is 972 wolves.
Treves recently submitted a paper for peer review that lays out his argument that the DNR's proposed plan does not factor in the latest science and, therefore, will not result in sound wolf management.
"The management plan is missing a whole series of scientific studies that call into question the policies that the DNR is pushing regarding lethal management of wolves, either this selective removal of wolves suspected of killing livestock or the public hunting, trapping and hounding. And the public hunting," Treves says. "And the science that is skeptical of the effectiveness in protecting livestock, protecting domestic animals or doing many of the things the DNR claims for that lethal management, those scientific studies are almost completely absent."
Treves considers his concerns fundamental to sound wildlife management policy.
“The Wisconsin public is being ill-served by a natural resource agency that isn’t free to speak and write as the science would inform them they should be,” Treves says.
Treves and Wydeven's comments are among more than 3,000 the DNR will be sifting through, and public comment closes on February 28.
Last week DNR Secretary Adam Payne told the Natural Resources Board the agency will thoughtfully “adjust and improve” the plan.
He anticipates discussing the revisions “face-to-face” with the public this summer.