Leah Gernetzke
Wolf population rises, along with questions about endangered status

Published in The Lakeland Times

“People always make the wolf more formidable than he is,” or so the French proverb says.

Whether the wolf is portrayed as formidable, wise, or wily, one thing is certain: the archaic relationship between it and man is indisputably complex.

“There is such a dichotomy on how people feel about wolves,” Timber Wolf Alliance coordinator Anna Cellar said. “Some people feel they’re a danger, or a threat. To others they are a beautiful symbol of being wild.”

Certainly, these opposing viewpoints mirror the grey wolves’ legal status in the last five years. According to the WDNR’s 2008-09 progress report of wolf monitoring in Wisconsin, wolves have been designated as a state-protected wild animal since 2004. However, they were removed from the federal endangered and threatened species list in 2007, re-listed in 2008, removed again in 2009, and in a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, re-listed yet again this year.

Though the endangered status of wolves is erratic, their actual population has been steadily rising. In fact, with an estimated 626-664 wolves in Wisconsin, this is the sixth consecutive year the population has well exceeded the state management goal of 350 wolves.

“The wolf population has shown to be very secure in the Great Lakes area,” WDNR mammalian ecologist Adrian Wydeven said.

Since the herds were counted in the winter and the wolf population increases in the spring, Wydeven said these annual estimates are likely low. Also, the count did not include lone wolves, which comprise 5-10 percent of the population.

This population surge has led citizens across the state to question – Are there too many wolves in Wisconsin?

The impact of wolves on the eco-system

As apex predators, wolves play an integral part in a forest’s biodiversity by reducing the impact of grazing, which allows diverse plants to flourish.

Wolves in the Western U.S. also change the grazing patterns of elk, forcing them to leave stream banks. This movement prevents landscape overgrazing, and contributes to the growth of plants such as willow. In turn, this growth creates a more hospitable habitat for beavers.

“Wolves have a direct and indirect effect on everything in an eco-system,” Cellar said.

While wolves mainly create positive change within an eco-system, she said a wolf population that’s burgeoning past the state management goal is not without repercussions. One of those is the inevitable rise in wolf depredations, or wolves preying on domesticated animals.

In 2006 there were 25 reported livestock depredations, increasing to 30 in 2007-08, according to the WDNR. The official 2009 totals have not yet been posted for livestock depredations, but as of September, about 39 wolves in the state were killed during the year because of farm depredations.

The number of dog depredations has also increased from 21 dogs killed in 2008, to 31 so far in 2009.

While livestock depredations are relatively rare, if an incident does occur it can be economically devastating for the farmer.

Local cattle farmer Roger James said he lost a quarter horse mare to wolf depredation in 2001. The depredation, which occurred on his parent’s farm in Hiles, has made an indelible mark on James’ livelihood.

“It just opened our eyes to the devastation the wolves are capable of,” he said. “The biggest thing is the constant worry and dread on a day-to-day basis … You worry that you’re going to lose more animals to them, and they’re going to start sulking around the farm and make the cattle uneasy and not conceive when they’re breeding.”

James has taken preventative measures such as fencing the calving lot in electric fencing, a practice he said is generally unhealthy because it puts the cows in closer proximity to one another, therefore promoting the spread of disease. But he said he would rather take his chances on illness than on another wolf depredation.

“It’s a constant threat for a ton of people,” he said. “Part of our livelihood depends on these animals.”

The business of population control

James said he thinks the DNR should implement a hunting season to keep the wolf population stable.

“Deer and bear are thinned out, and wolves should be no different,” he said.

Because of their endangered status, it is currently illegal to kill wolves without a permit from the DNR. Instead, farmers are encourage to take non-lethal measures, such as keeping livestock guarding dogs or placing strips of red flags around the perimeter of a pasture.

Cellar said one of the issues with the wolves’ endangered status is that states have less flexibility with their wildlife management plans.

“When people don’t think the state DNR is doing enough to stop depredations from occurring, there’s a lower social tolerance for wolves in general,” she said.

Despite this drawback, Cellar said she does not think now is the time to consider a wolf hunting season.

“That would be putting the cart before the horse,” she said.

Wydeven agreed, saying that though public harvest is something the DNR will consider in the future, a hunting season is not at the top of their current list of priorities.

“They are certainly not endangered any more. But right now, it is most critical to have them off the endangered species list and develop a flexible management system,” he said.

David Mech, a wildlife research biologist in Minnesota, agreed with Wydeven and Cellar.

“The sooner Wisconsin can have a management plan that minimizes contact with humans, the better for both the humans and the wolves,” he said. “To do that, the legalities must be addressed. Wolves were put back on the list because of legal niceties. They didn’t hold proper public hearings. This time they will have to make a new proposal for a longer public hearing.”

Laws of the wild

In the most recent process of re-listing the wolves, the U.S. District Court overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist the animals due to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Humane Society and 16 other organizations that believed the wolves were wrongly removed from the list.

The court sent the decision back to the service for re-consideration, who republished the final rule in April 2009 with the same verdict; the wolves were still off the list. However, the service’s decision was hasty, as the public was not given an opportunity to comment. The case was then sent back to the court, which trumped the service – The judge ruled in favor of the Humane Society, and the service admitted that the public should have been given an opportunity to comment during the re-consideration.

Intertwined in these legalities is the evidence of a rising wolf population that experts such as Cellar, Wydeven, and Mech are pointing to – As well as the benefits and consequences this wild population has upon the region’s eco-system.

As the age-old dispute between wolves and man plays itself out in the courtroom, our modern day relationship with the animal hangs in the balance of a forthcoming verdict.