NORTHWESTERN WISCONSIN: Wolves
return on own terms
By James Gorman
New York Times
Phil Miller flies the single-engine plane in a tight circle
at an altitude of about 300 feet, listening on his headset
to beeping from a wolf's radio collar.
The animal is somewhere below, in a mix of patchy pine
forest and low, sparse brush scattered over a snow-covered
swamp. It is a gray day, drizzling and misty, and after
the plane circles a line of pines several times, the wolf
is still not visible.
Then Miller spots a pair - their coats a peppery mix
of gray, black and cinnamon - standing casually under
a pine tree, looking for all the world as if they are
trying to decide whether it's worth going out in the rain.
If they were really worried about the weather, they might
go to the vast Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.,
only a two-hour drive away - or a 120-mile trot, no great
challenge for a wolf. These wolves are not on Arctic tundra
or in the precious confines of Yellowstone National Park.
They are in Wisconsin, not exactly the suburbs, but not
the wilderness either, and they fit a Midwestern stereotype:
modest, hardworking, persistent.
WOLVES CAN COPE
In their quiet way they have shown that wolves do not
need pristine wilderness to be successful, that they do
not necessarily need a highly managed reintroduction program,
as used in Yellowstone, and that they can increase their
range without stirring conflict among wolf proponents
"Once wolves were thought emblematic of wilderness,"
said Dr. Adrian Treves, a biologist with the Wildlife
Conservation Society in New York who has just published
an analysis of the conditions that are most likely to
bring wolves and people into conflict. But the nearly
350 wolves of Wisconsin, in 80 known packs, have shown
that they can cope with people.
"The wolves," Treves said, "have managed
to make dens and breed successfully for 25 years on a
lot of private land, on county and state forest land,
which is heavily, heavily used by recreationalists like
snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and hunters. This is
the classic case of the quiet recovery of wolves without
a big fanfare, without big attention."
He added that because the wolves conducted their own
repopulation, public reaction had been largely favorable.
No decision was needed to bring them back. They just came
back. This sort of resurgence cannot work everywhere,
of course, but there are states, like Maine, that have
large expanses of private forest land.
In the 1950s, northern Minnesota had a remnant population
of a few hundred wolves, Treves said. (A tiny group also
survived on Isle Royale, in Michigan's section of Lake
Superior.) After the Endangered Species Act was passed
in 1973, the protection it afforded, along with some forest
regeneration and a change in attitudes, allowed the wolves
to start growing in number, and the Minnesota population
began spilling across state borders. There are now more
than 3,000 wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin,
with most in Minnesota.
In Wisconsin, they recently reached the central forest
section of the state, "the southernmost natural occurrence
of the gray wolf in North America," Treves said.
The northwestern corner of the state has a number of
packs. Miller flies the wolves, as he puts it, about twice
a week, taking off from a small airport here. He and other
pilots here and at two other airports keep tabs on radio-collared
wolves throughout the state. Their reports go to Adrian
Wydeven, a mammalian ecologist who has been in charge
of the wolf program for the Wisconsin Department of Natural
Resources for about 10 years.
The day after flying with Miller, I went with Wydeven
as he drove slowly around on sandy roads looking for wolf
tracks in the same forested areas I had seen from the
air the day before.
Every wolf territory in Wisconsin is crossed by at least
one road, he said. As the wolves travel, he added, they
cross the road sooner or later and leave tracks.
The wolves range from 50 to 100 pounds, smaller than
those in Yellowstone and nowhere near the top of the wolf
scale, 150 pounds.
The state's plan puts the ideal wolf population at 350.
The known population is 327, with eight more on Indian
reservations, where state laws do not apply. Last year,
the federal government reclassified Wisconsin's wolves
as threatened rather than endangered.
The talking stopped when we saw tracks in the sand. These
were wolf tracks, not the large dog tracks we had seen
"If you look at these tracks," he said, "they're
more elongated than those other tracks."
He noted that the wolf was not trotting but running,
so that both back feet set down at once and then both
front feet - a gallop.
"If he's chasing after a deer, that would make sense,"
Stepping into the snow at the side of the road, he added,
"It looks like the deer veers off a bit here."
The tracks were fresh. "I would say less than a day.
I would say a few hours. It could be this morning. There
might just be a pair."
The road is a few miles from a major cattle operation
that has claimed significant depredations from wolves
each year. Those attacks on livestock are the central
problem in any resurgence of predators, and Treves has
been studying them.
Most of the problems arise with cattle, although wolves
have also killed sheep, turkeys and chickens. The state
compensates anyone who has suffered property loss because
of endangered species, using money from a voluntary checkoff
on income-tax returns and the sale of wolf license plates.
The compensation for calves has been based on fall market
value, at $602 in 2002.
Wolves have also killed "a large number of hunting
dogs," Treves said, and that becomes expensive. In
Wisconsin, hunters use highly valued purebred hounds -
Walker, bluetick and others - to hunt bear and other animals.
Wolves tend to look on these dogs as intruders in their
From 1976 to 1991, wolves killed two dogs. In 1998 alone,
they killed 11 and injured four. The payment for a hound
has been a maximum of $2,500, although owners have asked
for more. If a bear kills a dog that is hunting it, that
is simply in the nature of the hunt. If, however, wolves
attack the dog as territorial intruders, the hunters must
be repaid, perhaps because they are not allowed to kill
But in a twist, the largest payment so far has been $48,000
for deer that game-farm operators kept in an enclosure
of a few hundred acres. The game farms charge hunters
who want to kill trophy deer.
In a paper in the current issue of Conservation Biology,
Treves and his colleagues describe a method to analyze
the circumstances most likely to lead to wolf depredation,
and they predict where the risk of such events will be
high. A predictive tool of this sort, he said, is applicable
not only to friction between wolves and people, but also
to conflicts with elephants, tigers, wild dogs, and to
any situation where the interests of people and animals
The study looked at 25 years of information recorded
on wolf predation in Wisconsin and Minnesota, a total
of 975 incidents. In analyzing the information, Treves
paired sites with a high incidence of depredation against
others that were similar in most ways to pick out any
The highest risk, he said, was "at the colonization
front" - the wolves as the colonists for once - where
an expanding wolf population brought the animals into
contact with people who were unused to coping with wolves.
In addition, he said, it is young, inexperienced wolves
who colonize new territory, while the older, established
packs hang onto the territories they have.
He found that density of deer, the primary prey, drew
wolves to an area, and that significant pasture, particularly
the interweaving of pasture with wild forest, was also
a risk factor. The goal of his research, he said, is to
enable officials charged with protecting wolves to know
where best to put their efforts at control and education
and to develop new ideas for control. For example, the
less edge, where pasture and forest meet, the better.
His findings may also lead wildlife managers away from
lethal control, which Treves said is inefficient at getting
the wolves that are preying on livestock. The more refined
the understanding of how wolves and people interact, the
better the chances are for keeping the public on the side
of the wolves.
The wolves are doing their part to keep their population
growing. When Wydeven, the ecologist in charge of Wisconsin's
wolf program, was inspecting the tracks in the sandy road,
we came on a spot where the road was all scuffed up with
"They're milling about here," he said.
I asked whether they might be playing.
"They might be, or they might be mating," he
replied. "We're still in the breeding season."