Wolves are one of the most iconic species of wildlife in the world. They’re also one of the most polarizing.
Few animals have amassed such fandom amongst tourists and internet nature lovers, and even fewer animals have generated such hatred amongst ranchers. Most hunters are somewhere in between, having both a tremendous amount of respect for the animal and a desire to keep their populations in check to prevent them from ravaging deer and elk populations.
Wolf hunting as become one of the most divisive wildlife management issues in modern American history. The fact of the matter is though, if we’re going to have populations of wild wolves on the landscape, then some people should be able to shoot wolves… sometimes.
Most of the criticism aimed at wolf hunting is based on misguided perceptions and emotional whims instead of facts or science though. In many instances, it’s a classic case of modern American outrage built on the concept of people getting mad online about something they know very little about and that impacts their life literally not at all.
The polarizing nature of wolf hunting was perhaps best exhibited by Wisconsin’s wolf hunting season earlier this year, and now that there is officially another wolf hunting season in the state on the docket for the fall, the controversial topic of wolf hunting is back in the spotlight.
The Endangered Species List
In January of this year, gray wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List after 45 years of federal protection. The decision was unequivocally based on the best available science, including both recent and historical information regarding wolf numbers and distribution in the contiguous U.S. It was a monumental win for conservation and something that should have been celebrated as an example of the remarkable system of wildlife management we have in place in this country.
Wolves are certainly no longer at risk of extinction in the wild. Although there may be opportunities for expansion and growth of wolf populations in some states, the species has blown past the recovery criteria established when they were first places on the endangered species list.
Acknowledging the successful recovery of wolves is one of the few things on which both the Obama and Trump Administrations agreed. The Bush Administration was on the same page, too. Just recently, the Biden Administration also stood by the decision to delist gray wolves.
However, anti-hunting groups have done a tremendous job of sowing misconceptions about wolf populations and previous delisting efforts have historically been thwarted by lawsuits filed by these groups, most of which who fundraise off misconceptions about wolf management. After all, it would be difficult to fundraise on the premise of “Saving America’s Wolves” while also admitting that America’s wolves have already been saved.
The recent delisting of wolves meant that primary management of the species was transferred from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the fish and wildlife agencies in the states where wolves roam though. That means that management of the species was transferred from bureaucrats sitting in offices in Washington D.C. to the wildlife professionals on the ground actually monitoring wildlife and conducting scientific research throughout the ecosystems where wolves are present.
Differing opinions about wolf management at the state level is what has opened the door for controversy. Wolf hunting has long been legal in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho with little negative impact on the overall sustainability of wolf populations in those states. The recent delisting of wolves nationwide, however, opened the door for potential wolf hunting seasons in the Great Lakes region as well.
While Minnesota and Michigan have been slow to determine whether or not to hold a hunt, when management of wolves was turned over to the state of Wisconsin, they wasted little time in implementing a wolf hunting season.
But to be clear, the only reason that wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List is because their populations have blown past the pre-determined metrics for what it takes to classify their populations as recovered. Wolves in the Great Lakes region actually met their pre-determined population recovery goals more than 20 years ago, but the controversial nature of wolf hunting prevented them from being delisted.
But with species like wolves, management is often polluted by politics instead of driven by the best available science.
Wolf Hunting In Wisconsin
When Wisconsin’s controversial wolf hunt took place in February, the population was believed to be more than 10 times larger than the population metrics laid out in the initial recovery plan with well over 1,000 wolves roaming the state. It’s also important to note that almost the entirety of Wisconsin’s wolf population is concentrated in the northern 1/3rd of the state, meaning wolf populations are extremely dense in that area. There is anecdotal evidence that the high number of wolves has essentially ruined the quality of deer hunting in that part of the state and literally taking food off peoples tables.
The implementation of February’s wolf hunting season in Wisconsin was admittedly done through a relatively rushed process though, but Wisconsin state law actually dictated that a hunting season had to be implemented once the wolves were federally delisted.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had reportedly planned to initially conduct the hunt from November 2021 through February 2022 and actually rejected the idea of implementing a last minute hunt. The agency would have rather taken most of 2021 to meet with a variety of stakeholders, including the state’s Native American tribes. Incorporating stakeholder feedback and developing a more rigorous plan for the hunting season would have been the more appropriate route to take.
However, a judge overturned that decision and ordered the DNR to open a wolf hunting season immediately after the delisting. The immediate opening of a hunting season was also something demanded by state legislators, which set a horrible precedent and provided a clear example of politicians hijacking wildlife management decisions from the wildlife professionals more fit to make those decisions.
While implementing a wolf hunt was the right course of action and legally required, the details of the hunt should have been determined by the agency and not by elected officials. The Wisconsin DNR, the entity by far best equipped to determine whether or not a hunting season was warranted to keep the wolf population in check and in accordance with ecological and social carrying capacities for the species, was forced to implement a hunting season without adequate time to develop a proper plan.
The agency subsequently proposed a quota of 200 wolves for the February hunting season. 81 of those wolves were allocated to the Ojibewe Tribe who have the legal right to hunt wolves within their tribal territory. That left a quota of 119 wolves for other hunters and trappers to harvest.
Predator hunting is typically measured through quotas instead of by season dates, so where as a typical deer hunting season will typically last for a pre-determined amount of time regardless of how many deer are taken, species like wolves are managed more meticulously so hunting seasons are generally built around the specific number of animals harvested and not dates on a calendar.
More than 27,000 people applied for the hunt. Ultimately only about 2,380 were drawn for the hunt, and roughly 1,500 of them actually bought permits and participated in the hunt.
The season was initially supposed to last a week, but it was closed after just three days when hunters and trappers had already removed 216 wolves from the landscape, a number that obviously exceeds the pre-determined quota.
The results of the hunt were met with immediate and considerable outrage, with headlines and stories about the state decimating its wolf population sweeping the internet. In reality, the Ojibwe Tribe actually opposes the hunting of wolves, so it’s unlikely the tribe harvested any of the 81 wolves they were allocated, which means the total wolf harvest was pretty much perfectly in line with the total quota number of 200.
Wisconsin DNR officials used population modeling to determine that a 200 wolf quota was a conservative estimate for how many wolves could be removed from the state’s ecosystems without jeopardizing the sustainability of the species. Wolves lost to poaching and vehicle collisions were also built into that population model to ensure the hunt would not have deleterious effects on the overall population.
The removal of 200 wolves through the February hunt reduced the population to an estimated 995 individuals, which is still more than double the number of wolves outlined in the states management plan. Wisconsin’s wolf range is also interconnected to wolf ranges in Michigan and Minnesota, and it’s believed that as many as 4,400 wolves are present in the Great Lakes region. Minnesota’s wolf range is connected to an expansive population of wolves in Canada that actually loops all the way around and connects to wolf populations in the Western U.S.
Research from the University of Wisconsin this summer indicates that the state’s population may be as low as 695 wolves, but that study provides virtually no data to back up those claims and instead shows anti-hunting bias and cites “cryptic deaths” as the reason for the low population estimate. So essentially they’re just assuming an arbitrary number of wolves have disappeared from the landscape with no evidence to back it up. The researchers claim their population model exhibits the best available science yet it contradicts plenty of scientific principles at the same time. It’s just another example of the polarizing nature of the issue driving an agenda.
The issue of wolf hunting in Wisconsin has already started making headlines again as the upcoming November wolf hunting season approaches though, and again the hunting season again comes with controversy.
The Wisconsin DNR proposed a quota of 130 wolves for the fall, but the state’s politically driven Natural Resources Board has instead set the quota at 300.
A quota of 130 wolves was set by the state DNR and that number factored in uncertainties surrounding the population and was in accordance with ensuring the long term sustainability of the species, so for the same board that helped rush through implementation of the February hunt to decide the recommended quota should be more than doubled is a bit puzzling.
The skewed research from the University towards one extreme and the skewed quota towards the other extreme just further exemplifies how polarizing this issue is. It also further exacerbates a concerning trend whereby wildlife management decisions are dictated by either outrage about hunting or by broader political motives instead of the best available science.
One thing is for certain though, wolves in the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Great Lakes Region have fully recovered to the point where they simply will not ever be hunted back into extinction, so hyperbolic claims about that being the case actually hurts wolf conservation efforts more than it helps.
Another thing that is certain is that wolf populations have grown to the point where they need to be kept in check by sustainable and regulated hunting. The sooner people accept those two facts, the sooner meaningful conversations about wolf management can start taking place.
The 2021 combined Wisconsin Hunting Regulations pamphlet is now available online and will soon be available at license agents and open service centers around the state. The pamphlet brings season dates, shooting hours and regulations together in one convenient document. pic.twitter.com/Lqeqpb4D6K