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Bad River Band Wildlife Specialist Says State Leaders Need To Learn From Tribes On Wolf Relationship

Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) Portrait - captive animal
Holly Kuchera
After Wisconsin hunters killed nearly double the state's goal for a weeklong wolf hunt, Bad River Band wildlife specialist Abi Fergus says the DNR needs more collaboration with tribes.

Wisconsin recently held its first gray wolf hunt since 2014. Native tribes exercised their treaty rights to 50% of the quota in ceded territory and the state was left with a target of 119 wolves for nontribal hunters. In just the first three days of the weeklong hunt, nontribal hunters registered 215 dead wolves, blowing past the state’s goal.

In Ojibwe culture, the Ma'iingan, or wolf, is considered a sacred animal, and tribes choose not to hunt them. Edith Leoso is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa, and works as their tribal historic preservation officer.

Leoso compares their kinship with Mai'iingan to many people's bonds with their domesticated dogs. "It's the same way when people say 'this dog is part of our family.' Well, this dog is part of our family," she says.

She understands their relationship with wolves as a deep historical commitment in which the wellbeing of one is directly related to the other. Indeed, she says, when the wolf population reached its lowest levels in the 1950s, "so was the same with Anishinaabe, the Native population. We were emotionally, physically, and psychologically beaten down."

After decades of forced assimilation in boarding schools, many tribes began to lose their traditional values and languages. Now, Leoso says her generation is adamant in never letting that happen again.

A wolf on the Bad River Reservation in a foothold trap, waiting to be collared.
Abi Fergus
A wolf on the Bad River Reservation in a foothold trap, waiting to be collared.

Leoso says, "No matter how long we have been looked at as not being a human being, not being worth living—the same thing that's happening with Ma'iingan— we are still persevering through all of that, and so will Ma'iingan.

Abi Fergus, a wildlife specialist for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and co-author of the tribe’s 2019 Ma’iingan Relationship Plan, is working to ensure the wolves' continued existence. Fergus, who is white, says there are cultural differences between how the Wisconsin DNR and tribes view wolves. She points out the difference in words that they each use to describe their plans as one example.

“A lot of state plans you’ll see use the term ‘management’ and the word 'management' doesn’t really accurately describe the relationship between Anishinaabe (cultural group of Indigenous people in the Upper Midwest and Canada) and Ma’iingan,” she says.

One important role gray wolves play in Wisconsin’s ecosystem is in helping manage the white-tailed deer population. Fergus says that wolves will target old and sick deer, which helps reduce the spread of diseases like chronic wasting disease among deer.

Another difference, Fergus says, is that, “We’re not really focused on numerical populations, just them being able to serve their purposes in our ecosystems."

Fergus also says that communication between tribes and the state leaders is lacking. The state is legally required to consult with tribes before allowing any wolf hunt, a requirement she says they did not meet.

That lack of communication is a loss for everyone, Fergus says, because that collaboration could lead to better outcomes when it comes to wolf planning.

“They’re missing out on the perspectives and work of the people who care for Ma’iingan the most, arguably,” she says.

Moving forward from the hunt that Fergus calls “a slaughter,” she says she is focused on creating new partnerships at the state and federal level.

“I want to outline a plan for how federal and state and tribal agencies can work together and with volunteer programs for carnivore coexistence,” she says.

Ben Binversie was a producer with WUWM's Lake Effect program.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.