Unlike past hunting and trapping seasons that were highly regulated, based on sound science, and informed by an open and transparent public process, the February 2021 wolf season in Wisconsin was a politically driven, court-ordered hunt done in haste and without adequate time for public input and consultation with scientists, stakeholders, and tribes.

The February 2021 season, which ended less than 72 hours after it started, resulted in a harvest at 182% of the state-licensed quota — meaning 216 wolves were killed rather than the targeted 119.

In this regard, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was set up to fail. The Natural Resources Board approved double the number of harvest permits recommended by the DNR. This high ratio of hunters to quota, as well as the guidelines for reporting killed wolves (also set by the state Natural Resources Board), the guidelines for closing zones to harvest (established in state law), and the broad allowances of harvest methods (also set by state law) left the DNR trying to manage a process it had little control over — not to mention, one the public and tribes had relatively little say in.

Most details regarding the wolf harvest in Wisconsin are dictated by state law rather than DNR administrative rule, as most other managed species in the state. Administrative rules are reviewed and modified through a very participatory process and are much more amendable compared to state laws.

The timing and impact of this season also create major difficulties for the Wisconsin DNR’s efforts to set quotas for the fall of 2021. Aside from greatly exceeding the state-licensed quota, this hunting and trapping season raised several concerns.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The season occurred at the peak of the breeding season, meaning it very likely could result in reduced reproduction. That’s unlike a fall harvest, which would have less of an effect.

Due to the large number of wolves killed using hounds (86% of the kill), it is likely that multiple wolves were killed from individual packs, increasing the probability of a pack dissolving and failing to reproduce.

The coincidence of the February 2021 hunt with the DNR’s use of new wolf population-monitoring methods, which uses occupancy models rather than the traditional minimum count system, adds challenges to future wolf conservation. Plus, the Wisconsin DNR opted not to collect certain biological data from harvested wolves that could have increased understanding of the impact of this hunt.

It appears some harvesters may have contributed to this overharvest by encouraging others to delay as long as possible reporting their take, a practice that can contribute to quotas being exceeded. This practice violates hunter ethics, taints the role of regulated hunting in wildlife management, and casts distrust. It also questions how future quotas for wolves will be established and managed.

This season has further strained state-tribal relations regarding the shared conservation of wildlife species, especially wolves, within the ceded territories of the tribes. This raises new questions regarding the expectations of quotas in state-tribal relations.

The process of the recent wolf hunt demonstrated disregard and disrespect for wolves, natural-resources professionals, and the general public in the state. The implementation and execution of this hunt provided evidence for those who believe wolves continue to need the protections of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Wisconsin will soon be initiating preparations for a fall wolf hunting and trapping season. The state must learn from this season and take significant steps to coordinate management objectives with tribal governments, provide adequate opportunity for public participation, consider the full range of public interests, and implement measures to ensure effective harvest control.

The Timber Wolf Alliance is committed to using science-based information to promote an ecologically functional wolf population in areas of suitable habitat and to promote human coexistence with wolves. The Timber Wolf Alliance is not opposed to regulated wolf hunting.

Adrian Wydeven of Cable is a certified wildlife biologist and chair of the Timber Wolf Alliance Council (northland.edu/centers/soei/twa/).