In June of this year, news stories proclaimed that the bald eagle was flying so high it was no longer considered endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Within a few days, wounded and crippled bald eagles started arriving at Marge Gibson's rehabilitation facility in Antigo, their wing bones shattered by lead shot, their feathers in tatters.
"I had four eagles come in within a three-week period that were shot, and they were all adults," says Gibson. "And that's very unusual. I do get the occasional eagle that's been shot. But this was just..." Gibson pauses, searching for words to express her exasperation, her disgust. "It's just people being so ridiculous."
A fifth eagle was also brought to Gibson's Raptor Education Group, a nonprofit rehab and educational facility she founded in 1990. That bird had been caught in a leg-hold trap and had to be euthanized. Of the four that were shot, one died, while the others are in various stages of rehabilitation. The fact that these four eagles were adults, their iconic white heads visible from afar, tells Gibson these were not accidental shootings.
"I think sometimes people just read or hear the headline or the first line, and they don't go any further, and in this case, they assume it's a free-for-all," says Gibson. "It's wonderful, it's amazing, that the eagles have done so well they were taken off the endangered list. But if we don't maintain vigilance, that can change again."
In April, the federal government also declared that timber wolves are no longer in need of Endangered Species Act protection. As with the bald eagle, this was a national delisting. In both cases, Wisconsin was a leader in the species' recovery.
In fact, with its long history of wildlife stewardship and environmental consciousness, Wisconsin is pretty good digs for most wildlife species.
Ospreys, for example, have made tremendous strides, going from 92 nesting pairs in 1973 to 457 pairs in 2006. In 1987, there weren't more than a couple of trumpeter swans in Wisconsin. Today, a recovery program run by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) boasts 600 of the big birds statewide.
Wild turkey populations are also booming - so much so that in places like Milwaukee, turkeys are stopping traffic and taking over people's backyards. In 1974, the DNR released 330 wild turkeys from Missouri in nine western counties. Since then, turkeys have spread throughout most of the lower two-thirds of the state, and seem poised to colonize the Northwoods.
Raccoons? Coyotes? Opossums? More of them make Wisconsin their home than ever before, it seems, if roadkill and problems with people are any indication.
A confluence of factors has created a veritable Wisconsin wildlife boom. In the case of eagles and wolves, the Endangered Species Act has been a huge help, just as Wisconsin's own endangered species program has greatly helped the osprey and the trumpeter swan. Wild creatures have also been aided by improved habitats, warmer winters, and their own ability to claw out viable living spaces in suburban and even urban landscapes. Another big key: kinder human attitudes about wildlife.
But with more wildlife almost always come more wildlife-related problems, putting those kinder attitudes to the test. And when problems crop up, it's usually the animals that suffer. Can't we just all get along?
It's not impossible. But striking a balance between people and burgeoning wildlife populations takes some time, education and understanding.
In 2006, the DNR counted 1,065 nesting pairs of bald eagles across the state. Pretty amazing, considering that in 1986 there were just 244 pairs, and only 82 in 1970. In fact, in 1950, no bald eagles existed in the lower two-thirds of Wisconsin at all.
"We now even have eagles nesting in and around Madison," says Andy Paulios, an avian biologist with the DNR.
Karen Etter Hale, executive secretary of the Madison Audubon Society, is pleased that eagles have been removed from endangered species status. "It really is good," she says. "It shows that the Endangered Species Act works. A lot of us can remember when it was really unusual to see an eagle anywhere in Wisconsin."
While the DNR and numerous wildlife nonprofit groups have done much of the work to bolster eagle populations, it was the might of the federal government that ultimately made the recovery possible.
In 1963, there were just 417 nesting pairs of eagles in the continental United States. Scientists blamed the steep decline on DDT, an agricultural pesticide used heavily after World War II. DDT weakened the birds' eggs, making the shells so thin they broke before the eggs could hatch. Decades of indiscriminate shooting and poisoning hadn't helped, either.
Eagles became protected in the 1960s, under the predecessor law of the Endangered Species Act, and were one of the original species covered by the act in 1973. The year before, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to help eagles when it banned the use of DDT. From then on, eagle populations began a slow rebound. Today, the lower 48 states are home to just under 10,000 breeding pairs.
Wolves are another success story.
Placed on the Endangered Species Act in 1974, wolves began drifting into Wisconsin in the early 1970s from packs in neighboring Minnesota. From these few stragglers, wolves have spread throughout northern and into central Wisconsin; it's estimated that the state is now home to 138 wolf packs.
Adrian Wydeven, a DNR biologist, says wolf counts at the end of the winter revealed a population of between 540 and 577 wolves. And that was before the packs had spring pups. Minnesota, meanwhile, has approximately 3,000 wolves, and about 450 roam Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Endangered Species Act status made it a federal crime to harm protected species. Thousands of dollars in fines were levied for killing wolves and eagles - although never, in the Great Lakes region, for the $100,000 maximum. Plus those prosecuted incurred hefty legal bills. Over time, the message was clear: Kill a wolf or eagle, pay a big price. Not surprisingly, such killings became much less common.
The Endangered Species Act also brought federal dollars to manage, monitor and study endangered species. States were also able to compensate farmers and others who sustained losses due to wolves. This was done so people wouldn't feel too threatened (or victimized) by the big, rangy predators, and might be more willing to accept them.
Meanwhile, the DNR and nonprofit groups like the Audubon Society, Timber Wolf Alliance and Raptor Education Group were educating people about wolves and eagles. They set out to dispel myths and show how these species were important parts of their respective ecosystems.
To kill a wolf
Legally speaking, being off the endangered species list does not mean it's open season on eagles and wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildfire Service will monitor both wolves and eagles for at least five years, and, if it feels populations have slipped, can reinstate them as endangered or threatened species. Both still enjoy significant legal protections.
"It wouldn't be as high as endangered species fines," says Wydeven. "But a person could still pay a couple thousands dollars in fines if he shot a wolf illegally."
Yet since their removal from the endangered species list, wolves in Wisconsin have become more endangered. This spring, a Price County man killed a wolf that was chasing his Border collie. In early July, a Birnamwood man shot a wolf dragging off a slain calf. Twenty "problem" wolves have been killed by Wildlife Services, a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The DNR has also issued about 20 wolf-kill permits to landowners, though none has yet led to wolves being shot.
Legally, Wisconsin's DNR has control over wolf management, and the agency allows people to shoot wolves that are threatening their property. But something deeper is also at work, driven by negative cultural views.
The relationship between people and wolves has always been more contentious than between people and eagles. While eagles may kill the odd lamb or chicken, they aren't seen as much of a threat to livestock or pets. (An old wives' tale about eagles snatching up unwatched babies fortunately seems to be just that.)
Plus, eagles are our national bird, and their recovery has moved apace with growing public respect for their majesty. They seem intelligent, calm, patrician.
Wolves, in contrast, have had bad PR ever since the tale of Little Red Riding Hood portrayed them as sneaky and viscious. They are known to kill livestock, as well as dogs and cats. On very rare occasions they've attacked humans. In a 2005 case that received huge media attention, a college student in Saskatchewan was apparently killed by a pack of wolves.
Of wolves and the negative view some people have of them, Etter Hale of the Audubon Society reflects, "Maybe they're seen as being more in competition with us than other wildlife. Maybe we're too much alike?"
At any rate, some wolf defenders think state agencies like the DNR are too willing to let wolves be killed in cases where the animals are causing problems.
"They feel the problems could be taken care of almost completely by prevention rather than by the killing of the wolves," says John Olson of Eau Claire, who oversees wolf issues for the Sierra Club's Wisconsin chapter. "Their concern is legitimate."
But, Olson adds, some farmers in wolf areas have taken preventive measures to avoid problems. And he argues that people in the Northwoods are generally quite supportive of wolves, thanks to concerted public education by nonprofits and the DNR: "Most of the people I encounter seem to appreciate having wolves and find it interesting that we have wolves in our area."
The greatest opposition - and loudest call for a wolf hunt - is from the Wisconsin Bear Hunters' Association. Over the years, DNR records show, nearly 100 bear-hunting dogs have been killed by wolves. But Olson doesn't expect that Wisconsin will allow the wholesale hunting of wolves anytime soon.
"It would be a long, complicated thing, and would have to go through the Legislature," he says. "I think that when push comes to shove, general public support will guarantee the wolf's survival in Wisconsin."
Olson thinks anti-wolf attitudes are most vehement in northeastern Wisconsin. These are areas of prime wolf habitat that have never really been fully used by wolves. He suspects this is because locals practice their own form of wolf management: "Shoot the wolf, bury it, and don't tell anybody."
Still, Olson is upbeat about the future of Wisconsin's wolves. The state has large blocks of wolf-friendly habitat and ample food (largely due to a huge deer population). He and other concerned citizens have worked with the DNR on its wolf-management plan, which he supports.
In fact, Olson argues that without delisting, "we would've lost more wolves in terms of illegal shoot-and-shovel kills." Because there's now a legal means for killing problem wolves, he says, people may be less likely to take matters into their own hands.
One common conception of the relationship between humans and wildlife holds that, as people come in and alter the landscape, wildlife head for the less-populated hills. But coyotes have apparently not gotten the memo.
In fact, the smart and adaptable animals are doing so well in Wisconsin they're currently living and reproducing right inside Milwaukee city limits.
"If you're going to take a farm field and level it off and build a Wal-Mart on it, certainly that action is going to displace any coyotes present in the area," says Tami Ryan, a wildlife supervisor for the DNR's southeast region. "However, once all the construction is done and the trees are planted, and there are still those green corridors surrounding it, the coyotes are just going to come back."
Coyotes have been living in Wisconsin at least since the first European settlers arrived. But in recent years they've become increasingly visible.
In 1999, the DNR estimated there were between 17,000 and 20,000 coyotes in Wisconsin. Last year, DNR records show, about twice that many were "harvested" by small-game hunters and trappers. No one knows how many coyotes are in Wisconsin today, as it's not an animal the DNR regularly monitors. But Caleb Bilda, DNR assistant furbearer specialist, says the number of coyotes killed by trappers and hunters has trended up since the mid-1990s, as have coyote complaints and sightings.
Ryan's experience also suggests the numbers have risen rapidly. "Actually, I started getting calls about coyotes around 1995 - that's when the calls became prevalent," she says. "It's pretty much been that way ever since."
Coyote complaints range from coyotes eating pet food from dishes on people's back porches, to coyotes lurking around bird feeders (the spilled seeds attract rodents, which attract coyotes), to fears that a coyote spotted in a neighborhood may attack children.
While there's never been a coyote attack on a human in Wisconsin, it has happened in other states. But coyotes have attacked and even killed dogs in the Milwaukee metro area.
"It's more common for someone's dog to be attacked by another dog than it is to be attacked by a coyote," says Ryan. "But it certainly does happen. I routinely advise people to be cautious and watchful over their dogs. Don't let them run freely in areas where coyotes are known to be present."
Many of the calls Ryan gets simply report urban coyote sightings. "I think people are surprised that coyotes live in urban environments," she says. "And when they see them, they think the coyotes shouldn't be there. It's kind of like the big-bad-wolf mentality being alive and well. However, once they understand, and I have an opportunity to speak with them and also give them suggestions on how to prevent problems, that typically seems to be an adequate resolution."
The deer paradox
If wolves caused a couple of million dollars a year in losses to Wisconsin farmers, there would be a loud call to kill as many wolves as possible. But white-tailed deer do much more damage than that, year in and year out. Plus, there were at least 37,000 deer-vehicle accidents last year. The cost in higher insurance premiums and auto-body repairs alone is in the tens of millions.
Yet despite the huge financial costs they represent, deer are not the object of popular wrath.
Dr. Thomas Heberlein, emeritus professor of rural sociology at the UW-Madison, gives a simple explanation: "People think they're beautiful animals."
Wildlife professionals refer to deer as "charismatic megafauna," a term for large wildlife with popular appeal. Deer are pretty. We like seeing them in fields as we drive by. The adults move with grace, and the fawns are cute. They don't scare us.
Deer have gone through their own revival, though many of us are too young to remember. In the 1920s, Heberlein notes, parts of Wisconsin had no deer hunting because there were not enough deer. He has a copy of the front page of the Portage County Register from 1937, which has his grandfather's obituary. Another front-page story?
"Eight Deer Seen Crossing County Trunk P Near Portage," Heberlein reads. "Literally, there were times in Wisconsin when seeing deer really was front-page news."
Deer numbers grew over time, along with associated problems. But both increases were gradual, and people got acclimated.
It doesn't hurt that these megafauna bring in mega-dollars. Tom Hauge, chief of the DNR's wildlife division, says deer are worth an estimated $500 million a year to Wisconsin. Much of that's due to deer hunting. Yet deer are a huge part of the Wisconsin Northwoods experience, and an important factor in the state's tourism industry.
The carnage on our highways keeps growing, and a handful of people are killed in deer-vehicle accidents every year, says Kevin McAleese, director of conservation programs for the Sand County Foundation, a Monona-based conservation group. Yet, even here, money plays a role.
"Auto insurers have largely absented themselves from the issue," says McAleese. "There is too much PR downside to taking a strong herd-reduction position, and insurers are able to pass these costs along to policy holders. The automotive body shop industry gets a lot more business when deer densities are rising and out of control, as they are now generally."
He adds, "Wolves and other species don't enjoy similar confluences of constituencies."
But given the state's flourishing wildlife populations, maybe we need to cut these other species some slack. When these wild beasts cause us problems, cost us money or make us a little afraid, it's easy to revert to old attitudes, to load up the guns and set the traps.
Sometimes, such reactions are justified. More often, though, some tolerance and understanding can produce other ways to navigate around those inevitable difficulties. Our wildlife is adapting to us, to the world we've fashioned. Can we learn that lesson and do the same in return?
Wisconsin is pretty good digs for most wildlife species. But with more wildlife come more wildlife-related problems.
'It's wonderful that eagles were taken off the endangered list. If we don't maintain vigilance, that can change again.'
Since their removal from the endangered species list, wolves in Wisconsin have become more endangered.