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Less protection for wolves?
As wolf population increases, state considers delisting them from threatened to protected species
By Monique Balas
Green Bay News-Chronicle
11/24/03

With the nine-day deer-gun season in full swing, hunters can expect to see a few wolves while they're out in Wisconsin's northern and central forests.

The state's population of gray wolves has rebounded quickly over the years, making them more visible and surprising many wildlife officials. The state is attracting nationwide attention for its plan to take Canis lupus off the threatened species list because it consistently has been meeting population goals for recovery.

The animals remain under state and federal protection, and shooting a wolf could mean a $5,000 fine and a prison sentence. But those protections will be weakened if the animals are reclassified from threatened to state protected species.

"We hadn't expected the wolf population to grow as fast as they have in the Midwest," said Ron Refsnider, a regional endangered species listing coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It shows wolves are adaptable animals. All they need is an adequate prey base and pretty much to be left alone, not killed every time they're seen."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified wolves from endangered to threatened in April, whereas Wisconsin reclassified them four years ago. Wolves had been listed as an endangered species since 1972.

If Wisconsin upgrades wolves from threatened to protected, the federal agency likely will follow suit, giving the state ultimate authority in controlling its wolf population.

"State listing is only symbolic, because the federal is more restrictive," said Adrian Wydeven, a mammalian ecologist for the state Department of Natural Resources and the agency's point person on wolves. "Once the federal government totally delists wolves, then all management authority goes back to the state. Then we can continue to manage wolves however we want."

Only five years ago, there were 32 wolves in Wisconsin but that number has increased by tenfold to an estimated 335 in the past half-decade, Wydeven said. The wolves began moving here from Minnesota in the 1970s, and a combination of factors have kept them here. State and federal protection, an abundant deer population, mild winters and more wolf education programs are some of the factors.

The resurgence in Wisconsin and neighboring Michigan and Minnesota is the only natural restoration of gray wolves besides the wolves of northwestern Montana. The Upper Great Lakes regional wolf population is the largest gray wolf population in the lower 48 states, according to the Timber Wolf Alliance, an educational group based at Northland College in Ashland.

What would a change in status mean?

If the animal is delisted to a protected species, restrictions on controlling problem wolves would be loosened. Landowners would need only one case of verified wolf depredation - the loss of livestock from a wolf attack, for instance - instead of two before state officials could trap or kill the wolf.

"So that would mean we'd be able to trap more quickly on a farm," Wydeven said. As it stands now, only certified state officials can respond to nuisance wolf complaints by trapping or killing the animals. Before the federal reclassification, wolves only could be moved, not killed.

Since April, 17 wolves have been euthanized for depredation to livestock, Wydeven said.

A change from threatened to protected would put wolves in the company of elk, moose, wolverines and badgers. It would mean that once the species is removed from federal and state lists, the DNR's wolf management plan could allow for landowners to shoot problem wolves and could allow for a public harvest if the population becomes overwhelming.

While landowners might be pleased, some environmentalists and animal-rights activists are concerned that removal of protection may mean the wolf population could decline before it's had a chance to flourish.

"I'm not against delisting the wolf if it stays a protected nongame species," said Norm Poulton, who heads a wolf task force for the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of the Lakeland Area.

But a movement to allow public harvesting does concern him.

"They have a tough life," said Poulton, who serves as a volunteer tracker for the DNR's Wolf Recovery Program. "It's not easy being a wolf. Bad things can and do happen to wolves."

Diseases, territorial disputes and car accidents can lower the population back to the point of extinction, he said, and Wisconsin's wolves won't be any better off than they were in the 1970s, when they were first listed as an endangered species.

A California-based animal-rights group, the Animal Protection Institute, has said the state is "preparing to launch war on wolves" by its proposal to declassify the animals.

"Federal and state laws have helped rescue the wolf from the brink of extinction," API program coordinator Brian Vincent said in a statement. "But the wolf still needs intensive care. Wisconsin's attempts to weaken protection for the species is like pulling the plug on a patient in critical condition."

Wolves used to be plentiful in Wisconsin's forests until a bounty system that began in 1865 slowly killed them off; the last living one was shot by a bounty hunter in the 1950s, Wydeven said.

"There was a lot of incentive to kill wolves and trap wolves," Wydeven said. "After we got rid of them, we started thinking maybe they had a place in the state."

As long as there is a combined population of 100 wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan - which has been the case for nearly 10 years now - and there are reasonable steps in place to maintain the population and habitat, the state will meet delisting requirements.

The DNR has been holding public hearings about the delisting process throughout the state to get the public's input. A public comment period ended on Friday.

Wydeven said reaction generally has been in favor of removing the animal from the threatened list.

"We'll probably recommend we'll go ahead with delisting based on what we're going on so far," Wydeven said.

The federal process likely would take about a year, Refsnider said. The Fish and Wildlife Service must analyze possible threats such as disease and human impact to determine if it will be able to survive in the state without federal protection. The agency would have to allow for public comments and Refsnider said he expected to be sued by animal-rights groups, which would slow the process. If both processes go as planned, state delisting could occur as early as next year and federal delisting by 2005.

What are the environmental consequences of a wolf resurgence?

"The general trend is when there's a healthy wolf population, there's a healthy plant population as well," Wydeven said. "Deer behave differently, they're not overly browsing, causing destruction of plants."

Deer tend to be more scattered when wolves are around, so they won't keep eating one plant until it's gone. That means more plant variety and a more variegated ecosystem in Wisconsin's forests.

So far, no wolves have been detected in areas where chronic wasting disease has been detected among deer, and Wydeven said the fatal brain disease hasn't been known to affect wolves. In fact, a bigger wolf population could mean another way to control the disease.

"Wolves are really good at picking off sick animals or animals that are weak and less fit," Wydeven said. "An animal with chronic wasting disease is likely to be picked off in the early stages and prevent other animals from getting sick."

Refsnider said it's hard to predict environmental consequences of a species' reintroduction into its habitat.

"They're moving into an ecosystem where they've been gone for a while. It'll take some time for changes to be noticed," he said.

Hunters shouldn't worry about competition. Each wolf consumes roughly 18 to 20 deer each year, including scavenging, which adds up to about 6,030 to 6,700 deer per year consumed by the species. Human hunters harvest more than four times that amount. Last year, the DNR reported more than 300,000 deer were harvested by gun seasons alone.

"They're truly not competitive with man at all," said Christina Sherman, senior animal keeper at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary.

Where are they around here?

Wolves tend to travel in packs and live on territories ranging between 70 to 75 square miles. They are reclusive and tend to avoid humans.

Wydeven said there are a group of three wolves just south of Suring, a pair east of Mountain, two packs in Marinette County and a group on the Menominee Indian Reservation.

The closest Green Bay residents might ever come to a wolf are the ones kept at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. One female wolf from a research facility in Minnesota and her four male offspring consider the sanctuary home.

"I don't think we'll ever see one close to Green Bay because they're going to be around less human-impacted areas as much as possible," Sherman said. "A densely populated area such as a major city is not going to be attractive to a wolf. They need hunting ground, they need territory, they need space."

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