wolf hunt editorial
Wolves, such as this one spotted in 2006 near Wisconsin Dells, are being seen more frequently in the state. Jayne Belsky

As Wisconsin prepares for its first wolf hunt, hunters say using dogs to track wolves is essential to the hunt's success.

Animal welfare advocates, however, say the state is not doing enough to protect dogs from potentially deadly confrontations with wolves.

A Dane County judge temporarily has banned the use of dogs in the controversial hunt, and a hearing on the case is scheduled for this week.

Bob Welch, executive director of the Wisconsin Hunters Rights Coalition, an organization that was active in lobbying for the season and also in authoring the legislation creating the hunt, said hunters who cannot use dogs won't kill wolves.

"I think it would be very unlikely you'd even get one," Welch said.

Wisconsin would be the first and so far only state to allow hunting dogs to be used to track wolves. The state's Department of Natural Resources has set a goal of killing 200 of the state's more than 800 wolves during the five-month season beginning Oct. 15.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Peter Anderson's order allows planning for the hunt — without dogs — to continue while he considers arguments from a group of humane societies and others that the DNR needs to create rules to keep dogs safe during the hunt.

Hunt supporters counter that any rules, such as requiring the use of leashes, would make dogs less effective in the hunt and as no other state allows such hunting the DNR doesn't have other models to look to.

A hearing on a state request to dismiss the lawsuit is Friday.

Hound-hunting tradition

Carl Sinderbrand, the Madison lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said other states have wolf hunting seasons that are expected to be successful even though hunting dogs aren't allowed.

States such as Montana have had successful wolf hunts without dogs. Even Alaska, Sinderbrand added, limits the use of dogs to using a leashed dog to track a wounded wolf.

Minnesota also is putting its first wolf hunting season in place but will not allow the use of dogs. Chris Niskanen, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the agency has set a quota of 400 wolves out of the state's total population of about 3,000.

The use of dogs "never really gained much traction" in Minnesota, according to Niskanen, who said agency biologists believe hunters without dogs as well as trappers will have little problem killing 400 wolves. He said the agency expects many wolves to be killed by trappers, which he added is the most effective method of taking a wolf.

As for differences between Wisconsin and Minnesota on the issue, Niskanen said Minnesota does not have a strong hound-hunting tradition such as that found in Wisconsin. Indeed, one of the most vocal groups in support of the Wisconsin wolf hunt was the Wisconsin Bear Hunters' Association. Almost all bear hunters use hounds to track their prey and force it into a tree.

Dogs drive wolves

How would a wolf hunt with dogs work?

Welch said the law allows hunters to use up to six dogs. The dogs, he said, are used when there is snow that permits tracking. When the hunters find a wolf track, the dogs are released. They are outfitted with GPS collars that allow the hunters, on all-terrain vehicles or in trucks, to keep track of the location of their dogs.

The hunters split into groups. One group moves out ahead of the dogs, Welch said, and waits for the dogs to drive the wolf to them.

They then shoot the wolf when it comes into sight.

Areas hunted can be anywhere from one to 10 square miles in size, said Welch. Hunters would only release their dogs when one wolf rather than an entire pack is present.

Welch said physical confrontations between dogs and wolves are highly unlikely because evidence shows a single wolf will run from a dog rather than turning to face it down in a fight.

"The first objective of a wolf is to get away," said Welch.

But Sinderbrand said state payments to hunters who have lost dogs to wolves during the bear hunting season say otherwise. He said that between 1985, when wolf depredation claims were first paid, and 2011, the state has paid claims on 195 dogs killed by wolves either while hunting bears or training for the hunt.

Even so, Sinderbrand indicated the plaintiffs are not seeking to stop the wolf hunt but rather are trying to get regulations in place that would offer more protection for dogs.

Sinderbrand said such regulations could require the use of leashes, limit the dogs allowed to scenting hounds that are less likely to attack a wolf, and require professional training of wolf hounds.

Welch said such regulations, especially rules that would require the use of leashes, are impractical. He said such rules "have no bearing on what happens in the real world."

Hunt moving forward

Meanwhile, the DNR has indicated it will move ahead with plans for a wolf hunt in which dogs are not allowed, at least for now.

Kurt Thiede, who is overseeing the administrative details of the hunt for the agency, said under the wolf hunting law, the use of dogs is now not allowed until after the deer hunting season ends. The extra time might allow for the legal case to be resolved. Or, at least, there might be time to get rules in place if Anderson orders them to be written.

As of late Friday, the agency had received more than 20,000 applications for wolf permits.

Thiede said the agency plans to hold a drawing to select the final 1,160 permits early this week.

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