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