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Dennis Anderson: Lessons from Wisconsin's controversial wolf hunt worth examining

Dennis Anderson: Lessons from Wisconsin's controversial wolf hunt worth examining

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Wisconsin's image took a hit recently when 216 wolves were killed during a three-day Badger State hunt— a toll that was 82% over the hunt's quota.

Wisconsin's image took a hit recently when 216 wolves were killed during a three-day Badger State hunt — a toll that was 82% over the hunt's quota. (Contributed photo/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS — Wisconsin's image took a hit recently when 216 wolves were killed during a three-day Badger State hunt — a toll that was 82% over the hunt's quota.

Time was in this country when that result would have been celebrated, if not rewarded. The first North American bounty on wolves, after all, was established in the 1600s, soon after the Mayflower landed. A whole lot of wolf killing followed, and by the 1970s, Minnesota was pretty much the Lower 48's last haven for the gray wolf, or canis lupus.

Yet in the last half-century the wolf has recovered, not only in numbers — as its ranks have been reintroduced in multiple U.S. locations where its populations had been extirpated — but in its public image.

Many Americans today, particularly those living in cities, consider the wolf to be nearly sacrosanct. Contributing to this rebranding have been the wolf's widely admired role as a consummate apex predator and a newfound appreciation of the wolf's place in various ecosystems.

Given this increase in popularity, controversy was guaranteed when a highly unusual combination of events, including a lawsuit by an out-of-state hunting group, forced the Wisconsin DNR to hold a February wolf hunt it had not anticipated.

The fact that in Wisconsin hounds and other running dogs can be used to hunt wolves — the only state that allows this practice —has amplified the post-hunt outcry that still resonates nationwide.

To better understand the hunt, let's take a look at a few of its salient details:

— First, true as it is that some people's image of these animals has changed, wolves are still wolves. Just as in the past, in order to live, they kill. In the Midwest, deer most often are their victims, but wolves also kill livestock and occasionally dogs and other pets. Also, wolves are territorial, and left unchecked they will continually disperse to establish new packs in new territories. For these reasons and others, many people who live among wolves consider them unwelcome neighbors.

— As the accompanying map shows, the Wisconsin DNR set a quota of 17 harvested wolves in Zone 6, which essentially covers the southern half of the state. Hunters instead killed 40 wolves in this zone. Where exactly wolves were killed in Zone 6 hasn't been reported by the DNR. But the fact that so many wolves could be killed there, and also in Zone 5, where 31 wolves were taken by hunters, speaks to a key variation between Wisconsin and Minnesota, namely that, due to different wolf-protection classifications governing the two states before the federal government returned wolf management to the states in January, Minnesota had federal wolf-control officers charged, essentially, with keeping wolves out of the southern and western parts of the state. Wisconsin didn't have a similar cadre of officers, thus, in part, its more expansive southern range of wolves.

— Critical facets of the hunt were outside the Wisconsin DNR's control. Its biologists, for example, recommended the hunting-permit pool be limited to 10 times the hunt's proposed non-tribal quota of 119 animals (81 licenses were reserved for the state's tribes), or 1,190 hunters. Instead, the state's Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the DNR, required the DNR to issue 20 times the number of available non-tribal permits, or 2,380 (of which the DNR ultimately sold about 65%.)

— Using dogs to hunt bears and other game in Wisconsin is a long-standing tradition, and groups such as the Wisconsin Bear Hunters' Association wield considerable political power in the Wisconsin Legislature.

— Wisconsin's three previous (recent) regulated wolf hunts, in 2012, 2013 and 2014, were held in fall and ended in late December — periods during which good tracking snow wasn't guaranteed. By contrast, fresh snow fell on the recent hunt's first and second days, providing critical advantages to houndsmen whose hunting methods include driving back roads until they "cut" fresh wolf tracks crossing into the woods. Then they free up to six dogs (the legal limit) to run (theoretically) the wolf toward waiting hunters.

— Timing of the recent hunt played to the houndsmen's advantage (86% of harvested wolves were killed by hunters with dogs) in other ways, also. One was that Wisconsin's coyote season was still open, and many coyote-hunting houndsmen had their dogs legged up and in prime condition. Another was that by Wisconsin state law, 24-hour notice must be given by the DNR to shut down a season. Consequently, even when it became apparent to the DNR that its quotas were likely to be met — or exceeded — triggering a season shutdown, the hunt could continue for another 24 hours.

— Adding to this, if social media can be believed, houndsmen were encouraging one another not to report their kills right away — they're not required to until 24 hours after a hunt ends — thereby ensuring the longest possible hunt.

— Finally, for better or worse, depending on one's viewpoint, while the number of dogs sent in pursuit of a wolf (or bear or coyote) in Wisconsin is limited to six, there are no limits to the number of hunters or backup teams of dogs that can be used to aid a licensed hunter. So if one group of six dogs gets tired running a wolf, they can be replaced by another team (at least theoretically; not every houndsman owns or has access to multiple teams of dogs). Additionally, instead of one or two hunters hoping to get a shot at a wolf that, for example, is pushed into an open field, six, eight or even 10 or more rifle-toting friends can help the licensed houndsman.

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