Wildlife biologists from tribal and conservation groups are decrying Wisconsin’s February wolf hunting season as a wildlife management “debacle’’ that placed politics above science and that will help anti-hunting efforts across the board.

And they’re now asking for changes to state laws before the same thing happens again in November.

“This wolf hunt really gave a black eye to sound wildlife management,’’ said Adrian Wydeven of Cable, representing the Northland College-based Timber Wolf Alliance. “It plays right into the hands of groups that want to stop any kind of wolf management, or any kind of hunting, because it was so excessive.”

Wydeven said he expects groups that have filed federal lawsuits to restore federal protections for wolves to now use the results of the Wisconsin hunt — which ended with 82% more wolves killed than planned — as an example of why states can’t be trusted to use sound science to manage the big canines.

PREVIOUSLY: Wisconsin wolf harvest 82% higher than goal

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Both Wydeven and the Alliance support wolf management, and supported the wolf’s delisting from the Federal Endangered Species Act on Jan. 5 because wolves have met the standards for a recovered species in the western Great Lakes region.

But Wydeven said the February hunt was a “politically driven, court-ordered hunt done in haste, without adequate time for public input and consultation with scientists, stakeholders and tribes.”

Wydeven knows Wisconsin’s wolves perhaps better than anyone else. A mammalian ecologist and biologist, he ran the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wolf efforts from 1990 to 2013 as the agency’s large carnivore specialist, retiring from the agency in 2015.

2012 wolf law still drives policy

Wydeven said the hunt was guided by an arcane 2012 state law that should be revised before it's used to hold another hunt this autumn. DNR officials say they are moving toward a second 2021 hunt starting in November, as the 2012 law appears to require.

While the Department of Natural Resources and, at first, the state Natural Resources Board opted against the February hunt, saying more time was needed to set parameters and update data on wolf population dynamics, a state court judge ruled the agency must move forward based on that 2012 law.

The same 2012 law allowed widespread use of tracking hounds to chase wolves out of the woods and into the open where they were vulnerable to being shot. The DNR said 185 of the 216 wolves killed in February were taken by hunters using dogs. (Other parts of the 2012 law allow hunters to kill wolves using bait and to hunt at night over bait piles with the use of night vision goggles.)

In Wisconsin’s only other modern wolf seasons, held annually each autumn from 2012 to 2014, dogs were allowed only after the state’s firearms deer season was over. But by then, most of the wolf quota had already been met. DNR officials said they had no data on how effective dogs would be when used from the start of a wolf hunt held in mid-winter because it had never been done before anywhere.

DNR officials did not respond to requests to comment for this story but have repeatedly said they are bound by the 2012 state law, by court decisions and by specific hunt details set by the Natural Resources Board.

Wydeven said the 2012 law should be revised to state the DNR “may’’ hold a wolf hunt, rather than “shall’’ hold a wolf hunt, and to let DNR wildlife experts decide details of how, where and when any hunt should be held.

“The department was really between a rock and hard place on this one. To have a law that prescriptive is really unheard of in wildlife management. We don’t have that for any other species that we hunt in Wisconsin,’’ Wydeven said. “It’s putting politics over science.”

Peter David, biologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, said the state ignored the pleas of tribal officials across Wisconsin who strongly opposed the hunt and who testified as such during a Natural Resources Board virtual meeting in January. But he also said the number of permits issued and methods used were politically driven and fast-tracked before the general public knew what was happening.

“I've been involved in wildlife management across three different states for years and I don’t know of a bigger debacle in wildlife management,’’ David said of the Wisconsin hunt.

Wydeven, who also represents Wisconsin Green Fire, a group of scientists who are seeking to “put science back in Wisconsin natural resource policy,” said the state is plunging headlong toward a November wolf hunt with "essentially zero biological data obtained from the February hunt." Because the hunt was held after winter wolf population surveys were conducted, Wydeven said the state isn’t even sure how many wolves remain in the state.

It’s not just the 216 wolves that were shot or trapped in February, “but the impact is going to go much farther. We don’t know how many pregnant females were killed. We don’t know how many packs were disrupted,’’ David noted. “There’s never been a hunt during a breeding season before and the biological impact is likely going to go well beyond 216 dead wolves.”

Wydeven and David said not only should the state strike its 2012 wolf hunting law, but also that the state needs to revisit its overall wolf management plan, the document that should set state policy for wolves. That plan was first developed in 1999, when the state had only about 250 wolves, and set 350 as the likely upper-carrying capacity for wolves in the state. Before the February 22-24 hunt, Wisconsin had about 1,100 wolves that appeared to be doing well.

“The state's wolf management plan is stunningly out of date,’’ David said. “And that 350 number was meant to be a goal. It was never meant to be a cap. It’s just politics at this point to say that they should kill two-thirds of the wolves now living in Wisconsin to get down to 350.”

But supporters of the wolf hunt, including Luke Hilgemann, a Wisconsin resident and CEO of Hunter Nation, the group that filed the lawsuit demanding the February hunt, say the hunt was long overdue and that killing 216 wolves, even in less than 72 hours, doesn't threaten the overall population.

"In Wisconsin, the population became unmanaged and overpopulated, resulting in a population nearly four times the Department of Natural Resource's goal,'' Hilergmann said in a statement released Thursday. "Moreover, wolf attacks had increased by 70% since 2014. That isn't just a statistic, it is Wisconsinites cattle and livelihood being destroyed, family dogs being devoured on the front porch and in backyards, and worse."

Too many permits?

Both David and Wydeven said politics again drove the wolf hunt when the Natural Resources Board issued double the number of permits the DNR had recommended. The DNR proposed issuing 2,000 permits to reach a goal of 200 wolves killed. The board authorized 4,000 permits.

When half of the state permits were claimed by tribal agencies, the DNR said it would stop the hunt when 119 wolves had been killed. But within 72 hours hunters and trappers had killed 216 wolves, 82% more than the state goal.

Wydeven said Wisconsin is the only state that allows the use of dogs to hunt wolves and that the method is extremely effective, especially in winter. Wydeven said he witnessed large groups of people hunting with multiple vehicles using dogs fitted with GPS transponders. The hunters could then determine where the dogs were running and where the wolf was likely to come into the open.

“I know of at least two wolves killed when they tried to cross a road ahead of the dogs, which is illegal in Wisconsin,’’ Wydeven said. “It’s not really clear in these cases if the person who shot the wolves was the person holding the permit.”

Wydeven said it appears some hunters may have contributed to the overharvest by encouraging others to delay reporting their kill as long as possible, likely contributing to the quota being so far exceeded. Hunters had 24 hours to report their kill legally and the DNR had to give another 24-hour notice before closing the season. Those intentional delays “violates hunter ethics, taints the role of regulated hunting in wildlife management and casts distrust on how any future quotas for wolves will be set,” he said.

Hilgermann counters that the 216 wolves harvested were only 16 over the DNR's original harvest quota before tribes claimed their share of the total.

Both Wydeven and David said Wisconsin appeared to be violating terms of federal treaty rights settlements that require the state to set hunting seasons with the advice and consent of tribes. Virtually all tribal officials opposed the hunt, noting wolves are considered sacred to Anishinaabe people.

“They have totally ignored the tribal interests and, for that matter, they have kept most of the general public in Wisconsin in the dark on this,’’ David said, adding that he expects tribal officials to use every means at their disposal to enforce their federal treaty rights regarding wolf management in the state, including legal efforts.

A radio-collared wolf in northern Wisconsin in an undated photo. The Wisconsin DNR is gearing up for a second 2021 wolf hunting and trapping season to be held starting in November after 216 wolves were killed in February. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin DNR)
A radio-collared wolf in northern Wisconsin in an undated photo. The Wisconsin DNR is gearing up for a second 2021 wolf hunting and trapping season to be held starting in November after 216 wolves were killed in February. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin DNR)

DNR gearing up for second 2021 wolf season

The DNR is moving ahead on two separate tracks on wolf management issues — one forming a short-term committee to determine how many wolves should be killed in a second 2021 hunt starting in November and the second a long-range revision of its current wolf management plan developed in 1999 and reapproved in 2007.

While DNR officials did not respond to requests to comment for this story, the agency recently released notice that it “is actively working to prepare for a fall 2021 wolf harvest season through a transparent and science-based process. While a revised management plan is in development, the department will convene a 2021 Wolf Harvest Advisory Committee to advise on the harvest objective and quota recommendation for the harvest season opening Nov. 6. The committee will include the organizations involved the last time the Wolf Advisory Committee met in 2014. Invitations have also been extended to additional organizations who previously requested a seat on the committee.”

The DNR said the harvest quota committee will proceed under the old wolf management plan and will include input from all interested parties, including tribal officials, during a public comment period expected to begin in April.

The DNR plans to present the committee’s quota recommendation on how many wolves should be killed to the Natural Resources Board in August.

Meanwhile the DNR is moving ahead with forming a Wolf Management Plan Committee that will meet over several months and develop a new long-term wolf management plan that likely will revisit, among other issues, the state’s so-called wolf population goal that now sits at 350, about one-third of the actual number of wolves in the state.

The DNR expects to have a revised wolf management plan to the state Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy, for approval by June 2022.

Some hunting and agriculture groups have argued the state should kill more wolves to reduce the population to that 350 animal level. But wolf supporters say that number was meant to be a goal and not a cap on wolf numbers.

For more information on the wolf management plan go to dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/wolfmanagementplan.