Calls for delisting wolves grow as numbers increase
Conflicts with farmers and hunters continue as the state’s wolf population swells over 900
In November 2018, wolves killed Laurie Groskopf’s 11-year-old hunting dog in Oneida County. That was nine years after wolves killed another of her dogs.
“These animals were trailing bear at the time, and one was trailing bobcat,” Groskopf said. “They were attacked by wolves without any provocation and killed. And for us, it’s been really, really traumatic.”
Wisconsinites subsidized Groskopf’s loss. She received $5,000 through an obscure Department of Natural Resources program that compensates animal owners for losses to wolves. But Groskopf said the payments — $2,500 for each dog — could not make up for the loss of pets she treated as family.
Nearly 60 years after gray wolves were considered extinct in Wisconsin, the population has rebounded dramatically, to more than 900 in the state. That is thanks to decades of protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal to hunt or harm listed species.
But the conservation success story has turned into a nuisance for hunters, farmers and others whose animals are increasingly encountering wolves — with deadly consequences. That is why some are calling for the federal government to delist wolves and resume legal hunting.
“I would say to people who are against controlling the wolf numbers, ‘What gives you the right to decide that my life is going to change substantially because you think wolves belong in my neighborhood?’ ” Groskopf said.
The wolf encounters are running up a tab on taxpayers. Over 34 years, the DNR has paid $2.5 million and counting in damage payments to hunters and livestock owners. Meanwhile, the compensation program appears to be falling short in one of its goals: making hunters and farmers more tolerant of wolves to reduce illegal killings of the protected animal.
The DNR has documented at least 260 illegal gray wolf killings since 1985, including 10 between April of 2018 and April of this year.
People convicted of killing a federally protected wolf can face up to six months in jail and/or a $25,000 fine, according to the DNR. Penalties can include the loss of a hunting license.
Those wanting to legally hunt the animal could get their wish. President Donald Trump’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year proposed lifting endangered species protections for wolves, calling their rebound “one of the greatest comebacks for an animal in U.S. conservation history.”
But Trump faces opposition from some conservation and animal rights groups that argue wolf populations have not recovered enough to survive hunting. And even if he succeeds in lifting protections, Wisconsin will continue to pay those who lose animals to wolves. That is because a 1999-2001 budget amendment enshrined the payments in perpetuity — regardless of wolves’ protected status.
Even some of that program’s beneficiaries question its usefulness.
“I’d rather see that money going toward management and control rather than buying a dead animal because we’re paying for it with our taxes,” said Jack Johnson, who raises beef cattle on a third-generation farm outside the city of Medford. Johnson said the state paid him about $400 in 2014 for a wolf-ravaged calf that would have otherwise fetched between $700 and $900 on the market.
The debate is only the latest in the ever-changing — and sometimes confusing — history of wolf management in Wisconsin and beyond. And it comes as Wisconsinites are divided on wolf issues.
Mike Wiggins, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission board member and chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said his community sees the wolf as a brother whose fate is intertwined with the community’s.
“And it’s been pretty remarkable to see their return,” he said. “I’ve probably had four or five occasions to see wolves in the wild, and it’s just an amazing, thrilling kind of occurrence that lights up the land, lights up everything with electricity. It really is a wilderness kind of experience, and it’s a gift.”
A 2014 DNR survey found that residents held attitudes toward wolves that were more favorable than unfavorable — by a small margin within wolf range, and by a larger margin outside the wolf range in northern and central Wisconsin. The survey also found that a majority supported a regulated hunting and trapping season.
Wolves declared extinct
Gray wolves have roamed Wisconsin since the glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago — coexisting with Native American tribes that highly respected the hunting animal, according to the DNR. As many as 3,000 to 5,000 wolves were here when the state’s European settlers arrived in the early 1800s, but that would not last. Wisconsin offered a bounty on wolves from 1865 to 1957, spurring widespread hunting that decimated populations.
By 1960, wolves were considered extinct in Wisconsin; similar trends played out in other parts of the country.
In 1974, the Fish and Wildlife Service added gray wolves to the list of federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act. By 1980, the DNR counted a fragile population of just 25 wolves in northern Wisconsin, as a few packs moved in from across the Minnesota border.
The animals’ listing status has since changed repeatedly, often in response to legal challenges. And the federal government allowed Wisconsinites to hunt wolves earlier this decade.
On Jan. 27, 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service removed the gray wolf from the list of endangered species in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin and parts of adjoining states. That also allowed the killing of wolves attacking livestock. The same day, Wisconsin lawmakers introduced a bill to create a wolf hunting season.
While wolf hunting advocates supported the bill, retired DNR wolf researcher Adrian Wydeven called the bill “egregious” because it mandated a season structure and methods for hunting wolves, including allowing the use of dogs to track them. He said traditionally the Legislature gave authority to DNR to create those types of rules through a lengthy, public rulemaking process.
“I think it was kind of like legislative overreaction that we finally get a chance to control this wolf population,” Wydeven said. “We’re going to do it as intensely as possible while we can do it.”
The hunt drew opposition from animal rights groups and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Wiggins, of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said he wanted to sue, but ultimately, the commission chose not to litigate.
Wisconsin held wolf hunting seasons in 2012, 2013 and 2014, until the federal government re-listed wolves in the western Great Lakes area as endangered following a federal court ruling. In those years, hunters killed 528 wolves, according to the DNR. Another 176 were killed through the renewed authority to use lethal force in response to attacks on livestock and other domestic animals.
If Trump succeeds in removing wolves from the protected list, hunting would again be allowed in Wisconsin, Scott Walter, a DNR large carnivore specialist, said in an email. But it would not happen right away. The agency would need to draw up state rules such as creating quotas and a permit application process, he said.
Damage payments begin
In 1983, the state established an income-tax checkoff that allows residents to donate to support federally protected species. It earmarked 3%, or up to $100,000 a year, to pay for damage caused by wolves and other animals under federal protection.
Wisconsin doled out its first wolf damage payment in 1985. A Douglas County farmer received $200 for killed sheep. Two years later, the state paid $2,500 for a hunting dog named Ranger, the first payment for “personal property” under the program.
Retired DNR section chief Randy Jurewicz said the idea of paying for hunting dogs was hotly contested within the agency.
“Paying for livestock made a lot of sense to almost everybody,” Jurewicz said. “These are animals that are being raised, being sold, it’s the Wisconsin way of life, and that made sense.”
Compensation for dogs killed by wolves was controversial, he said, in part because some believed hunters were knowingly putting their dogs in harms’ way.
“What kind of ruled was the fact that we had so few wolves in the state that, really, just a little bit of real serious negative feelings toward them would have eliminated them,” he said. “People just would not have tolerated them.”
DNR wildlife biologist Brad Koele now administers the wolf damage payments. After struggling with determining the market value for each dog, he said the agency set a limit of $2,500, which Wisconsin Bear Hunters’ Association president Carl Schoettel described as “fair and appropriate,” adding, “It is devastating for a pet owner to have their companion viciously eaten by wolves.”
To date, payments have averaged $2,324. The DNR paid a total of $806,451 for hunting dogs as of Oct. 3.
To limit dangerous interactions between wolves and