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Environment
WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Conservation Group Urges Wisconsin To Develop A Sustainable Wolf Management Plan

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Adrian Wydeven
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As the gray wolf is about to be passed from federal protection to Wisconsin management, a conservation group urges the state to plan carefully for the wolf's future.

Wisconsin is due to resume management of the gray wolf, including a hunting season, as the animal loses federal protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced the gray wolf's successful recovery, setting the stage to delist in all lower 48 states.

In Wisconsin, the gray wolf has swung between state management and federal protection for more than a decade.

>>Wisconsin Gray Wolf Debate Fires Up Again

Tuesday, Wisconsin's Green Fire, a statewide conservation organization, is releasing a 15-page paper on wolf management, hoping its unique expertise can help create a sustainable plan.

Seasoned scientists and specialists, many retired after decades working with the state Department of Natural Resources, brought the volunteer organization to life. Green Fire advocates for science-based management of natural resources.

Green Fire Science Director Sarah Peterson says the organization is uniquely equipped to offer advice, including on the importance of science-based wolf management.

“A big piece of this is recognizing the fact that Wisconsin is operating with a significantly outdated management plan,” Peterson says.

The state’s current plan is more than 20 years old and has a goal of managing a population of 350 wolves. Yet Peterson says today, more than 1,000 wolves are estimated to populate northern regions of the state.

“The plans are outdated; they're old," Peterson says. "It would be like not driving your car for 20 years and then deciding to hop in and drive across the country. You’re probably going to want to get those tires rotated, change your oil, get a tune-up — and we need a tune up with Wisconsin’s wolf management."

Peterson says Green Fire invited a diverse group of experts to weigh in on the topic.

“The folks that helped us write this paper are united around updating this conservation plan but also tend to have some slightly different views," Peterson explains. "That’s what sets this paper apart, is that it’s really bringing together some diverse viewpoints."

Native to areas including the northern Rocky Mountains and western Great Lakes, gray wolves were bountied and poisoned to near extinction by the mid-1900s.

They gained protection under the Endangered Species Act in the early 1970s. The upcoming delisting is the fourth time the federal wolf protection has been removed. That signals states’ responsibility to manage the animal.

The Wisconsin DNR will now have to decide on the state’s next hunt. It’s required by state law, whenever the wolf is delisted. Three hunting seasons have taken place – in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

>>Scientists Dig Into How Wisconsin Wolf Hunt Might Impact Population Stability

The upcoming delisting date, Jan. 4, makes it conceivable that a hunt could be scheduled this winter. But Peterson says Green Fire recommends holding off.

“There have been some calls for a hunt in January 2021. This gives us some pause because all hunts really should be planned with the utmost seriousness," Peterson says. "And the other important thing if a hunt were to occur in January or February – that harvest has the potential to disrupt breeding activity, it could create pack dissolution and it also could put our hunting dogs at risk."

>>Dogs Enter Wisconsin Wolf Hunt Monday

The use of dogs to track or trail wolves, written into state law, has been one of the most hotly contested elements of Wisconsin regulations. Peterson says the Green Fire paper touches on the topic briefly.

“Just to mention and callout the fact that Wisconsin is the only state with a regulated wolf hunt...that authorizes the use of hunting dogs," Peterson says. "And there are significant risks that are presented to dogs." 

Risks include injury or death.

As strong and varied as opinions are about wolves, from hunting to their mere presence on the landscape, Peterson says wolves are considered a public trust resource in Wisconsin.

“What that means is that the government has a responsibility to hold and manage fish and wildlife and waterways for the benefit of our natural resources and our public," she says. "And I think it’s incumbent upon us to think how do we include diverse perspectives. It’s especially important to consider the cultural values that our tribes hold."

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission has consistently shared its member tribes’ opposition to wolf hunting and trapping.

Meanwhile, some hunters and property owners have supported a wolf harvest season for years.

Peterson says Green Fire proposes striking a balance – stressing the importance of science and a broad range of stakeholders in developing wolf management policies.

The group hopes its paper influences policymakers and the DNR.

The DNR has not yet said when it will authorize a hunt, but says it welcomes the responsibility of managing the wolf population, as it’s done for decades.

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