Wolf trackers

A record number of hunting hounds has been killed by wolves this years. Above, volunteers examine wolf tracks in Wisconsin snow. Volunteers criss-cross the state to help officials estimate the number of gray wolves.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The number of hunting hounds killed by wolves hit a record high of 28 so far this year, the Department of Natural Resources confirmed Tuesday.

The state’s wolf population has grown while regulation of hunting dogs has been relaxed, but it’s not clear what factored into the increased dog deaths, said DNR large carnivore specialist David MacFarland.

“It’s too early to say what’s causing it, or if it’s really a significant difference or not,” MacFarland said. “It could be just one pack being more aggressive than in the past.”

The wolf population estimate this year is the highest yet for the endangered species, but little growth has occurred in northern areas where almost all of the dogs were killed, MacFarland said.

Meanwhile, it’s true that the state has more than doubled the number of bear hunting licenses it issued in the last decade, but only 10 to 15 percent of killed bears are bagged by hunters who use dogs to tree them, MacFarland said.

And while state law was changed in 2015 to end a license requirement for the summer dog training season, it’s not known if more dogs are being run, he said.

The DNR issues detailed maps cautioning hunters about areas where dogs are likely to have run-ins with wolves, but alternate locations are limited, MacFarland said.

Research suggests that the number of hounds killed by wolves here is higher than elsewhere because Wisconsin law allows bear baiting for a much longer period — about 145 days each year compared to a maximum of 30 days elsewhere.

Based on a 2014 survey of more than 2,600 bear license holders, the DNR estimated that hunters the previous year had placed nearly 6 million gallons of bait material in the woods to attract bear.

The bait also draws wolves that will defend the sites, leading to conflicts with hunting dogs released in those places to pick up bear scent, according to a 2012 study by researchers from Michigan Technological University, the Michigan DNR and the University of Helsinki.

Opponents of the use of dogs for hunting have also noted that the state is the only one to compensate hunters when their animals are killed by wolves. The $2,500 payments are made even when the hunter runs the dogs in caution areas or violated game laws.

The previous record was 23 hunting dogs killed in all of 2014. MacFarland said the 2016 tally may not grow much larger than 28 because most fatalities occur in summer.

That’s when hunters set dogs loose in the woods to train them to chase bears. It’s also when wolves’ territorial instincts peak because vulnerable wolf pups have come out of their dens and the protection of the pack is diminished by a division of labor among adults, MacFarland said.

“Wolves set up rendezvous sites that are almost like nurseries,” MacFarland said. “Some of the adults stay and babysit while the others hunt.”

By the second Wednesday after Labor Day, when the bear hunting season starts, wolf pups have grown, packs can move as cohesive units, and defensive instincts relax a little, he said.

Eleven of the 28 dogs killed this year, including four since Aug. 21, died in Bayfield County, according to DNR data.

After a wolf attacks a dog being trained for hunting, there is a high probability of further attacks involving its pack, MacFarland said.

The DNR tells hunters the farther they keep dogs from those packs, the lower the risk to their dogs.

But large tracts of land are needed for training, because dogs may chase a bear for miles before it climbs a tree to escape, MacFarland said.

To avoid trespassing, most hunters choose state and county forests, he said.

Moving to another location after a dog attack isn’t always possible because most of the forestland is already in use by other hunters during the peak of the training season, MacFarland said.

The DNR received 110,000 applications for 11,520 available bear permits this year, up from 4,000 to 5,000 permits issued annually from about 2000 to 2005, he said.

While some conservationists worry about flagging interest in hunting and fishing across the country, bear hunting in Wisconsin has grown in popularity.

“We’ve had a record numbers of applicants every year for 30 years,” MacFarland said.

Still, compared to the small army of men and woman who hunt deer each year, the number of bear hunters using dogs is small, at least in part because of the expense of purchasing, training and feeding the dogs, he said.

The use of dogs for hunting is controversial on several levels. In 2014 a state appeals court ruled that hunters can train dogs to chase down wolves, rejecting arguments from humane societies and the National Wolfwatcher Coalition that the practice led to cruel, bloody fights between wolves and dogs.

The once prolific wolf was all but extinct in Wisconsin by 1960. State and federal protected status allowed it to come back. In 2012 it was taken off the endangered list and the state had three hunts before a federal judge placed the species back on the list in 2014.

The hunt awakened a passionate dispute. Some see the wolf as harmful to the state’s deer herd, farm animals and hunting dogs. Others view it as an important natural predator that protects crops and important ecological balances by controlling the deer population.

A 2014 DNR survey of Wisconsin residents’ attitudes found wolves were viewed more favorably outside of the animal’s range, but most favored a growing population. Even inside the wolf range, only about one-third wanted fewer wolves.

Laurie Groskopf, who served as Wisconsin Wildlife Federation representative on the DNR’s wolf advisory committee, said 34 county boards have passed advisory resolutions seeking lower wolf numbers since 2010.

Wisconsin Bear Hunters’ Association president Carl Schoettel didn’t respond to a request for comment and vice president Lucas Withrow said in an email he wasn’t immediately available. A representative of the Wisconsin Association of Sporting Dogs couldn’t be reached.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.