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Scientific Scrutiny of Wolf Conservation Continues as Wisconsin's Second Harvest Commences


Tuesday the second wolf hunt season in Wisconsin commences. In the meantime, scientists continue to probe the complexities of balancing conservation and human’s varied interest and tolerance of the animal.

Last week veteran wildlife biologist and young scientists went at the topic from various angles during The Wildlife Society’s annual conference right here in Milwaukee.

The organizers titled the symposium – Conservation of the Recovered Wolves - and set out to cram as much data about the rising stars of research into the session as they could..

Enter Ramana Callan.

"So I know this is a symposium about the conservation of wolves, but our research questions really grew out of concern about conservation for plants."

Her collaborative work took on the question of how wolves would impact the deer population, and how that would affect biodiversity: Callan and her team are studying 38 plots described as “northern white cedar wetlands” scattered throughout five counties in north central Wisconsin.

UW PhD candidate Jennifer Stenglein is combining a highly refined modeling tool with decades of data on tracked and tagged wolf packs that have steadily increased on the Wisconsin landscape.

Stenglein is out to demonstrate “Effect of Additional Human-Caused Sources of Mortality on Wisconsin’s Wolf Population.” In other words, the stability of the wolf depend on more than the number harvested – such as what time of year and which members are killed.

“Wolves live in packs and they have this social structure to killing a juvenile disperser is very different impact on the pack than killing a pregnant female.

Wisconsin is upping its harvest quota this year from 116 to 251 wolves. Stenglein looked at the possible long term impacts to the state’s wolf population.

“The really striking one here is that if the entire study area and model harvest at 30 percent per year, the population really tanks sort of uniformly."

Stenglein is quick to add, modeling complicated created with complicated social dynamics is complex.

“And we’re making into something still very simplistic, and we're digesting the landscape into shades of yellow based based on just a couple of variables. So this is just a model still, even though it's sort of a different type of model."

Retired wildlife biologist Dick Thiel closed the wolf symposium.

"Okay our next speaker is an old guy."

UW Madison scientist Tim Van Deelen steps to the podium. A fellow wildlife biologist, Van Deelen organized the symposium, which featured Dick Thiel – retired wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as its closing speaker:

Thiel wears his “retired look” with ease – Hawaiian shirted and unrestricted by scientific protocol.

“If any of you think that our state wildlife management program is not fueled by what matters to the people who pay for that ticket, you’re crazy – wolves – I hate to say this – a lot of those people who not like to see them around. So how do we get through this impass. We are not really a bureau of wildlife management, w’re a bureau of game management and I don’t know what the solution, but the nonconsumptive user group has deluded themselves into thinking that they actually have a voice. They don’t have a voice. And until they actually influence their public legislature to have a voice, then all of you who work for state agencies will be doing the bidding of hunters. Now, incidently I am a hunter and I’m not terribly proud of what’s going in the state of Wisconsin right now. We’re being hijacked by special interest groups that are hunters, and that’s just it. The problem is, they’re using something that I absolutely love – which is wolves. “

Notre Dame PhD candidate David Flagel (left) presented "Great Lakes Forest Restoration through Gray Wolf Recolonization" at the symposium.

This was not the first time Notre Dame PhD candidate David Flagel heard Dick Thiel speak.

"Right after he retired he gave a talk at Midwest Wolf Stewards, which is a meeting we have among Midwest wolf ecologists and biologists. He has a ton of experience. He's one of the top people to talk with about wolf stuff.”

The seeds of Flagel’s desire to become a researcher were planted when he was growing up in Central Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, UW-Stevens Point senior Samantha Brunner is also waiting in line to talk with retired wildlife biologist Dick Thiel, who she first met in high school

Brunner says she really likes wolves.

"I'm not really a big fan of the wolf hunt, but I understand if we have too many wolves, then we're going to feel the consequences. So I'm kind of on the fence about the wolf hunt."

Brunner hopes to move on to grad school and focus on carnivores.

"I know it's very competitive but that's definitely where I'd like to focus." "Do you have a take… that’s definitely where I’d like to focus.

UW Stevens Point senior Samantha Brunner aims to become a wildlife biologist.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.