Wolf story cover photo
Brandon Raygo/The Capital Times with iStockphoto.com images

On July 17, in a conference room at a Holiday Inn in Stevens Point, Ojibwe tribal elder Joe Rose stood before the state Natural Resources Board at a hearing about the state's inaugural wolf hunting season to tell a story. It didn't mention quotas, depredation or trapping.

Instead, Rose, 77, who has lived on the Bad River Reservation along the Lake Superior shore since his birth — land he and other tribal members share with four wolf packs — told the story of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe ancestors) and ma'iingan, the wolf — a story of creation that forged a bond between the two.

The story is one in which ma'iingan becomes man's guide, and eventually a brother, as he takes him around Mother Earth to name all living things.

In the story, the Great Spirit warns man that should the wolf some day no longer have a place in which to retreat, and "pass out of existence," all other humans would soon follow.

"Our destiny is related to the destiny of the ma'iingan," Rose told the board. "That's part of our teachings."

But the creation story that depicts the wolf as a companion of man stands in stark contrast to the European view of the wolf, still held today by many non-native people.

The "Little Red Riding Hood" image of the big, bad wolf is alive and well, tribal representatives and wolf experts say. It's this cultural divide that has the native people opposing the state's first wolf harvest, while others are eager for a chance to hunt an animal that has recolonized Wisconsin after being driven out of the state in the 1950s.

The hunt is being used, along with a number of other methods, as a way for the state to manage the gray wolf population since it was removed from the federal Endangered Species List in January, the third time the wolf has been delisted since 1974.

Those eager for the hunt cite costly livestock losses for farmers, thinning deer herds and the death of hunting hounds, primarily those used to hunt bears, as reasons that it's time to reduce the state's wolf population of roughly 850.

"Those people have been brainwashed since they were kids. They don't understand the wolf," asserts Rose, an associate professor of Native American studies at Northland College in Ashland. "It is a strong symbol of the wilderness … it represents the natural world."

The wolf hunting season begins Oct. 15 and runs through the end of February. If the 20,272 applications received by the state are any indication, plenty of people are raring to kill a wolf. The state Department of Natural Resources will award 1,160 permits and plans to notify people soon, says Kurt Thiede, the department's land division administrator.

The use of dogs to hunt wolves is scheduled to begin Nov. 26 but that aspect of the hunt is mired in a legal battle. The plaintiffs in the case have charged that hunting wolves with dogs is inhumane without regulations in place to protect against violent confrontations between the animals. Wisconsin would be the only state to allow dogs to be used for hunting wolves. The case will be back in Dane County Circuit court Friday when a judge will decide whether or not to grant the state's motion to dismiss the case.

For the first hunting season, a quota of 201 animals has been set, with non-tribal hunters allowed to take 116 and a quota of 85 given to the state's six Ojibwe tribes who live in the ceded territory — non-reservation land the Ojibwe relinquished to the United States in the 1800s that covers roughly the upper third of the state.

Numerous tribal members and officials with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, however, say none of the state's 11 tribes intends to hunt wolves on their reservations. In addition, the Ojibwe bands don't plan to hunt in the ceded territory, a decision that has broader implications in terms of the state reaching its first harvest quota.

While the state, some hunting groups and many landowners in wolf territory say the state's wolf population of 850 makes it safe to hunt them without endangering their overall vitality, the same is not said by tribal members. No wolf population number would justify a hunt in their view.

"I don't believe you will ever have a tribal member who will provide you with that number," says Chris McGeshick, a member of the Sokaogon (Mole Lake) band of Ojibwe, vice chair of the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission and a former DNR warden. "That would be like telling you it's OK to harvest my brother."

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The fact that the tribes have been allotted a quota they don't intend to meet raises the question of why the state Department of Natural Resources would even give them one. The answer is twofold.

First, because of a 1983 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling known as the Voigt decision, tribes are allowed to hunt and fish up to 50 percent of the harvestable surplus of game animals and fish in the state's ceded territory. In the case of a new species harvest, the tribes have to be given a quota.

Normally, the state bases harvest quotas on the number of animals killed in prior seasons. Because it has no prior data to work from in the state's first wolf hunting season, it had to give the tribes roughly half of whatever quota was set.

Many, though, aren't convinced the state is playing it straight with the tribes on the harvest quota.

James Zorn, the executive director of the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, says some in the scientific community believe the state DNR manipulated the wolf hunt quota.

Jonathan Gilbert, a biologist and wildlife section leader with the commission, is among those who are suspicious.

He says he and other biologists representing the state and the tribes meet yearly to estimate the state's wolf population, based in large part on winter tracking surveys.

Based on the late winter estimate of about 850 wolves, they recommended a first-year harvest of 128 animals to the DNR. Instead, the agency disregarded that recommendation and came back weeks later with a harvest goal of 201, with 85 allotted to the tribes.

Subtract 85 from 201 and you get 116. One hundred and sixteen isn't exactly 128, but those two numbers are "pretty darn close, too close," Gilbert says.

"Is that a coincidence? I don't know," Gilbert says. "But the numbers and the math look suspicious."

If the wolf harvest quota were between 116 and 128, then the tribal harvest quota and non-tribal quotas would be much lower, or roughly half each of 128. Zorn says this is the first time he can remember that the state has given the tribes a harvest quota, despite the fact the tribes have said they do not plan on killing any wolves.

"That's something I have never seen happen before," Zorn says. "If this (action by the state) is a genuine recognition of the treaty, then this is a wonderful step forward. But if the true harvest quota is around 128 … then that's the number that should have been halved by the state to set tribal and non-tribal harvest quotas."

The decision by the tribes not to take any wolves could have big implications on the number of wolves non-tribal hunters can take next year.

"If the tribe takes zero wolves, the state could take the entire harvest number (85) and add it to their side," Gilbert says. "That is an entirely reasonable response for the state to make next year."

He says a similar process played out with the tribes' annual deer harvest numbers. Because the tribes have routinely taken fewer than their allowable 50 percent harvest quota, the state last year determined it no longer needed to sit down with them to hash out a quota every year and has given the surplus to non-tribal hunters.

The DNR's Thiede says he would rather not comment on how the state would adjust harvest quotas if the tribes did not take any wolves this season.

As for how the department arrived at the 201 figure, Thiede says they relied on information from western states that manage wolves about the size of a harvest needed to create an actual decline in the animal's numbers.

"The harvest rate needs to be in excess of 23 percent to see the wolf population actually decline," Thiede says. "That's why the department settled on the harvest rate of 201. That's the true harvest quota, based on the knowledge there were a minimum number of 850 wolves in the state last spring."

Decreasing the size of the wolf population runs counter to the tribes' wishes, but others, namely hunting groups, believe the quota for the inaugural season should be higher.

Bob Welch, a former state senator and lobbyist for the Hunters Rights Coalition, a powerful pro-hunting group, specifically told DNR board members at the Stevens Point meeting that the quota should be "much higher."

Because of the quota given to the tribes, the most densely populated area of the state, as stated by the DNR, will hardly see a dent in the number of wolves, Welch says.

"In this primary range, wolves are not going to go down and they're not planned to go down in this hunt. We think in the future, they should go down (in this area)," Welch says. "The concerns that people have raised that somehow this season will wipe out the wolves is, quite frankly, ludicrous."

Thiede said that because the higher density of wolves is in the ceded territory — 160 of the state's 213 wolf packs live there — the state wants to harvest fewer wolves there, allowing for a viable, sustainable population to remain in the north were there are fewer conflicts with humans and their animals.

While considerably less than Minnesota's wolf population of 3,000, those in favor of the Wisconsin hunt note the state's wolf population is much higher than the sustainable population goals set under both the federal and state endangered species acts — 100 and 250, respectively.

That "has brought about some of the negative feelings toward the wolf in the north," Thiede says. "Many feel the numbers got too high before we (the DNR) took control."

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The gray wolf population's steady growth has brought many run-ins with farmers and their livestock. There is frustration on the part of deer hunters who claim herds are thinning because of wolves. And bear hunters who use dogs to hunt have lost hounds to attacks by wolves.

As wolves naturally recolonized Wisconsin starting in the late 1970s, the DNR anticipated these conflicts as well as some general public opposition due to fear and misunderstanding about this top predator and took steps to respond.

The state's initial wolf management plan included education efforts, the ability to relocate problem wolves to other areas, payments to farmers for livestock killed by wolves and payments to hunters and residents for dogs killed or injured by wolves.

A federal wolf depredation control program also has been used, which allows trained shooters to remove problem wolves.

These efforts have led to 237 wolves being captured and 190 killed from 1990 to 2010, according to data provided by the DNR. Wolves also are regularly hit by cars and shot, purposely or accidentally, during various hunting seasons.

Wisconsin's monetary compensation has been costly. Since 1985, the state has paid out $1.45 million to livestock farmers who have lost sheep, calves, goats and other animals to wolves and to hunting hound and pet dog owners, according to the DNR's wolf damage payment summary report.

As an example of the payouts, Wisconsin's administrative code provides compensation for the fair market value of dogs killed or injured by wolves up to a maximum of $2,500 per dog.

Currently, about 15 bear hunting hounds die each year when they encounter wolves while out running in the woods, says Adrian Wydeven, the DNR's carnivore specialist, who has studied the state's wolf population for decades and in 1999 authored its wolf management plan.

While there have been many conflicts with other animals, the wolves have not proved a threat to humans, as some people feared when the predators returned to Wisconsin. Wydeven says there are no documented cases of people being attacked by wolves in the state.

Welch says the hunting organizations he represents favor a wolf population of 350, about 60 percent fewer animals than currently roam the northern third of Wisconsin and the central forests. That number matches the recovery goal originally set by the state. The groups believe that the depredation of livestock and dogs would be significantly reduced with far fewer wolves on the land.

"The wolves won't feel as pressured," Welch says.

Such a decrease in the state's wolf population stands in stark contrast to the tribal opinion and approach to wolves.

"The tribes do not feel the wolves have sufficiently replenished themselves," says Zorn, the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission director. "To them, driving the wolf population down to 350 is mind-boggling."

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With the wolf hunting season set to begin in a month, the tribes are still negotiating with the state on how to further protect the wolf packs that live in or near Native American reservations in the ceded territory.

At the July Natural Resources Board meeting, Mike Wiggins, chair of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwe, thanked DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp for honoring the tribe's request to retain control of wolf packs on the reservations. But he and others now are asking the state for the tribal reach to extend an additional six miles from the current boundaries of their reservations.

This so-called "zero-quota zone," would acknowledge wolves don't recognize and therefore don't stay within the geographical perimeters of the reservations. The request, Wiggins says, is based on years of tracking the members of the four wolf packs that live on the Bad River reservation.

"The request is reasonable and rooted in science," Wiggins says. "It's good policy for our packs."

Zorn says the tribes also question why it is necessary to have any quotas in two wolf harvest zones abutting the reservations, given that the number of wolves regularly killed either by landowners who spot them attacking their livestock or by vehicles is greater than the specific zone quotas.

Rose, the Bad River tribal elder, says other tribal elders over the years have taught of the great responsibility people have to live in harmony with nature. He says there is hope, because original man, or the Anishinaabe, were given a gift — the ability to share their knowledge and wisdom with others. He says a new era is coming, in which wealth will no longer be measured in terms of money, power or other egotistical things.

Instead, wealth will be measured in terms of clean water, fresh air and pristine wilderness. All those things are represented by the ma'iingan, he says, adding it's the reason the wolf needs to be protected.

"It's a lot different way of looking at the animal than western civilization," Rose says. "The wolf is not a threat like in 'Little Red Riding Hood.' It's not the bad guy."

Changing this image to one of public acceptance remains one of the biggest challenges the state faces in managing the wolf population, says Wydeven, the DNR carnivore specialist.

"Wolves disappeared in Wisconsin during the 1950s because people killed them off. It shows if you have enough of a (human) population against a species, you can kill them off," Wydeven says. "Changing this perception has to be a major part of our management effort."