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dogs, the DNR offers an interactive map showing areas where dogs have recently been killed.

But Groskopf said wolves are everywhere she hunts and trains her dogs. Groskopf operates a website, Wisconsin Wolf Facts, to raise awareness of the problems she said wolves have created for farmers and hunters.

“Eventually, there’s so many of them that you’re going to run into them,” she said.

The goal of the payments was, in part, to build tolerance among farmers and hunters for the increased wolf population. But illegal killings continued. A 2018 study by DNR research scientist Jennifer Stenglein found 9.4% of all radio-collared wolves were illegally killed between 1979 and 2013.

Adrian Treves, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and founder of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab, thinks the DNR has undercounted the number of illegally killed wolves. In 2017, he co-authored a study that found up to 37%of wolves the DNR reported as being killed by vehicles had metal fragments consistent with gunshot wounds. Wydeven disagreed with that finding.

Although wolves rarely attack humans, an ancient fear of the predators persists among some people. Treves said lifting federal protections and allowing lethal control would send a “policy signal” to would-be poachers that they could kill wolves without consequence.

Wolves rebound; new rules written

In anticipation of a federal push to remove wolves from the Endangered Species List, the DNR released a wolf management plan in 1999 that set rules for trapping, relocating and killing wolves that attacked livestock and pets once the state assumed management authority.

If wolves were to be delisted, it also meant farmers, pet owners and hunters would stop getting payments for animals killed by the formerly protected predators. But that budget amendment, introduced by former state Sen. Kevin Shibilski, D-Stevens Point, ensured the reimbursements would continue.

“I don’t remember how or even whether I authored and introduced an amendment,” Shibilski said. “But I certainly remember the debate, the ongoing conversation about how we live with wolves on the landscape.”

Shibilski, a former bear hunting guide, said the wolf damage payments are about safeguarding wolves.

“If you don’t behave responsibly and reimburse people for actual losses, you risk enabling bad actors out there, vigilante wildlife managers who are trying to kill predators wantonly and end up raising all kinds of havoc in our wolves, and that’s been happening,” he said.

Shibilski pointed to an incident this spring in which a wolf, three dogs, coyotes and other wild animals were killed by poisoned meat scattered throughout Florence, Marinette and Bayfield counties. Authorities investigated the poisonings, but no charges have been filed.

Livestock losses continue

Of the $2.5 million in damage payments, Wisconsin has paid more than $1.3 million for cattle, calves and missing calves — sums that have increased as wolves rebounded.

Farms that see the most wolf-livestock conflict tend to be located near large blocks of public land like the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, according to Dave Ruid, a supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services program, which investigates such livestock killings.

But the majority of DNR’s livestock payments did not require physical proof that wolves killed the animal. Under DNR rules, farmers who have had livestock killed by wolves can also get paid for any additional missing calves beyond the expected annual 2.3% mortality rate.

Michigan also pays for missing calves on farms with confirmed wolf attacks, but Minnesota does not.

In 2011, the DNR issued a record 257 missing calf payments, with 103 of those going to members of the Fornengo family, who raise beef cattle in Burnett County. The family, which declined comment, filed missing calf claims with the DNR under Fornengo Cattle Co. and T& T Ranch between 2009 and 2019. The DNR later enacted a rule that limited livestock producers to no more than five missing calf claims for every confirmed kill — but it was only in effect for two years.

As of October, the DNR paid nearly $720,000 for missing calves throughout the program’s existence, with $239,865 going to the Fornengo-owned cattle operations between 2011 and 2019.

Ruid said the owners agreed to allow the USDA to install a 6.5-mile electric wire at the farm at government expense. He said wolves are constantly testing the fence, and the farm has had confirmed livestock killings since its installation.

Farmer: Too many wolves

Johnson, the Medford farmer, has not lost an animal to wolves since 2014. The Fish and Wildlife Service put up flags — brightly colored and hung along a roped-off perimeter — on his land to scare them off. Still, Johnson believes farmers should be allowed to kill animals causing problems on farms. When wolves are around, the cattle are scared and do not want to eat — even their breeding cycles are affected. That is why he wants the federal government to lift protections for wolves. He would like to see no more than 350 wolves roam the state.

Wydeven, the former DNR wolf researcher, said 350 refers to the DNR’s 1999 wolf management plan, which was based on the premise that the population would only reach 500 animals in Wisconsin. Currently, it is nearly double that.

“So, 350 was logical and reasonable as a potential goal back in the early 2000s, but now considering we know the carrying capacity is quite a bit higher, that doesn’t really make sense anymore,” Wydeven said. “And it wouldn’t make sense to try to drastically reduce the wolf population down to that level.”

A research paper co-authored by Erik Olson, Northland College assistant professor of natural resources, suggests the changing status has led to inconsistent management, declining public support for wolves — and possibly more illegal killings.

Walter, the DNR large carnivore specialist, agrees.

“The continued tennis match back and forth that revolves around wolf management is increasing frustrations by constituents, by those farmers and others that are being impacted by wolves and by legislators who are listening to those constituents,” Walter said.

After two decades of consistent and rapid population growth, the state’s wolf population has leveled off — even without hunting, Walter added.

“And I think it’s becoming clear that wolves have essentially occupied all the suitable range where they can go about their daily lives unfettered by the heavy hand of humans.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.