Wisconsin’s first modern-era wolf hunt is nearing an end much sooner than even many of the state’s wolf experts expected.
As of Sunday, hunters had killed 95 wolves out of the 116 the state Department of Natural Resources set as the quota for the hunt, which could end as early as this week if that number is reached.
The season, which was set to run for five months, opened Oct. 15. The implication, some biologists say, is that wolves might be easier to hunt than people thought, even without the controversial use of dogs. That issue is locked up in Dane County Circuit Court where a judge is still hearing a case filed by 40 Wisconsin humane societies challenging the use of dogs during the hunt without adequate rules.
“We were expecting to learn a lot,” said Tom Hauge, director of the Bureau of Wildlife Game Management in the state Department of Natural Resources. “And I think we are learning a lot. We do have sufficient numbers of wolves in this state that hunters and trappers are encountering them and taking them.”
Hauge said one factor might be that Wisconsin’s woods are more accessible than the rugged landscapes in western states that biologists used as models to determine potential success rates and quotas for the state.
The DNR set a statewide quota of 116 wolves. Originally, it was 201, but the Indian tribes, which have treaty-protected hunting rights in the northern third of the state, claimed 85 wolves as their part of the quota. Citing cultural objections, however, tribal members chose not to kill any wolves.
Of the 116 wolves left to be killed by recreational hunters and trappers, about 60 percent were killed by trappers, Hauge said. The rest were killed by gun hunters. Hauge said the numbers show trapping is the most effective way to kill wolves, especially considering that trappers represented a small percentage of the licensed hunters.
As of Wednesday, the agency sold 869 resident wolf hunting licenses and six nonresident licenses. The agency authorized 1,160 resident licenses and 15 nonresident. There were 22,272 applications for the license lottery, including 486 from out of state, mostly Illinois and Minnesota.
Minnesota, which divided its wolf season in two — before and after its gun deer hunt — last week shut down its early season after hunters killed 147 wolves out of the quota of 200. Wildlife biologists in Minnesota also were surprised at how quickly hunters neared the quota during the early wolf season.
Dog use controversial
The seasons have been controversial in both states.
In Wisconsin, much of the debate has focused on the use of dogs to track wolves, which was authorized by the Legislature in the rule it passed that required the DNR to set up the hunt. The humane society groups that filed the lawsuit challenging that part of the rule argued the DNR failed to write rules governing the training and use of dogs, increasing the chances of violent and fatal fights between dogs and wolves. The next hearing in the case is set for Dec. 20.
Before the hunt, with the use of dogs temporarily prohibited by Judge Peter Anderson, hunters who favored the use of dogs warned that killing wolves would be difficult if hunters were prevented from tracking them with dogs.
But Melissa Smith, who has been active in organizing opposition to the hunt, said one positive to come from the hunt is that it proved dogs are not necessary to kill wolves.
The groups that filed the lawsuit challenging the use of dogs without more definitive rules filed a motion last week asking that the judge rule in their favor, pointing to the success of the hunt so far without the use of dogs.
One of the groups that pushed for the wolf hunt and the use of dogs is the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association. Carl Schoettel, of Neosho, vice president of the organization, said last week that the case is less about success rates and more about the rights of hunters.
“It surprises me, too, that the success rate has been so good,” Schoettel said.
“But we’ve been very consistent about saying that, regardless, it is our right to use hounds no matter what animal we’re hunting ... It’s a hunter rights issue. It’s about hounds. This is a lifestyle. Some people like to bike and some people like to swim. We like to run dogs.”
Even if the dog case gets resolved, wrangling over the hunt is likely to continue.
The Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals notified the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they will file a lawsuit if the wolf is not returned to the federal endangered species list within the next two months.
DNR pleased with hunt
Despite the controversy, Hauge said the agency’s wildlife experts were generally pleased with how the hunt has gone.
He said rules requiring hunters to report wolf kills within 24 hours and also to present the wolf carcass for inspection have worked well. Biologists were able to collect data — age, gender, general health information and reproductive status — that will be important for managing the wolf population.
That information, along with data from over-winter wolf surveys, will be helpful for determining quotas for next year’s hunt, he said.
Hauge said the agency will have to revisit the quotas, especially in light of the tribes’ choice not to kill any wolves. He said if a review of population estimates and depredation cases shows the season failed to adequately control the population, “that might mean some different decisions as far as quotas.”
Randy Stark, the DNR’s chief warden, said, as of late last week, the agency cited five wolf hunters and trappers during the hunt: one for trapping with untagged traps, two citations to hunters who purchased a trapping license without attending a trapper education course, and two citations to a wolf hunter for using illegal bait and having a loaded firearm in a vehicle.
Stark said the agency also investigated several videos posted online that showed wolf hunters videotaping live, trapped wolves and possibly not killing the animals immediately and humanely, as required by law.
But he said wardens concluded that no violations occurred and the animals were shot quickly and humanely.