Wisconsin's wolf population appears to have stabilized after regular increases in recent years, the state Department of Natural Resources reported Tuesday.
The DNR released results from the annual winter survey that showed as many as 944 wolves estimated in the state.
That's down about 2 percent from the estimated 956 last year, the state's modern-day record.
The number of packs increased slightly, from 232 packs in 2017 to 238 packs this winter.
By far the most wolves and most wolf packs are in the far northwestern counties of the state, including Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland, Iron, Washburn, Sawyer and Price counties - although that area saw an 11 percent decline in this year's wolf count.
State wildlife officials didn't list any reason wolf numbers would drop after years of increases even as the animal remains protected, saying only that the data suggests "that Wisconsin's wolf population may have begun to stabilize."
The survey is conducted by Wisconsin wildlife experts and a cadre of 100 trained volunteers. Wolf surveys are conducted annually during winter months, when snow cover affords suitable tracking conditions. The wolf population is at its lowest point during winter, so survey results are considered minimum counts. The population increases each spring with the birth of pups, and then declines throughout the remainder of the year due to various mortality factors.
It's the first decline in Wisconsin wolf numbers since a federal judge placed wolves back on the federal endangered species list late in 2014. Wolves were fair game to hunting and trapping in Minnesota and Wisconsin from 2012 through the autumn of 2014, with hundreds of wolves taken each year, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said their numbers had recovered more than enough to remove them from four decades of federal protections.
But a federal judge sided with wolf supporters who argued state wildlife agencies were allowing too much wolf killing too fast, and that excessive hunting and trapping could put the animals back into the same danger of extinction they were in when they were listed as endangered in the 1970s. That ruling still stands, with wolves federally protected, although efforts are underway in Congress to pass legislation moving wolves off the endangered list.
The current population is approaching three times Wisconsin's official goal for its wolf population of 350. Wisconsin's pre-settlement wolf population was strong until the predators were shot, trapped and poisoned into extirpation by the mid-1900s. Under federal protections, the animals began to trickle back into northern Wisconsin from Minnesota in the late 1970s. Their numbers slowly have increased to today's level.
Minnesota last September reported 2,856 wolves in 500 packs, up 25 percent from 2016 levels.
Minnesota wolf numbers had remained flat or declined some for several years before last year's big jump.