The world was created in a particular order. First came the physical earth and heavenly bodies, according to the Anishinaabe, a group that includes several Native American tribes. Then came the plants, followed by the animals and finally humans.
When the humans arrived, the Great Spirit asked them to walk the earth and name all things in the Creator’s garden, says Joe Rose, an elder with the Bad River Tribe. While Original Man was doing his walkabout, the Great Spirit sent a companion, and that was the wolf, to accompany him. As they traveled, they became brothers.
Then the Great Spirit called Original Man and Wolf into his presence and told them, Rose says, “In many ways you are alike. When you take a mate, it will be for life. Your social orders will be very complex. You will make your living by the chase, and both of you will be excellent hunters.” Then the Great Spirit told them, “from this day forward you will walk different paths.”
Rose explains that this creation mythology is part prophesy, an unfinished story. “The wolf became a very powerful symbol of the wilderness. Whenever we encroach on the wolf’s territory, he retreats further into the wilderness,” Rose says. “The Great Spirit told Wolf that, ‘a time might come when you will no longer have a place to retreat, and wilderness will no longer exist. If that happens, you too will pass out of existence.’ Speaking to Original Man, the Great Spirit said, ‘if your brother wolf passes out of existence, you will soon follow. You will die of great loneliness of spirit. If you pass out of existence, all other races of human beings will soon follow.’”
Metta Monday Creative
“We have four small wolf packs on our Bad River Reservation. We protect them.... The wolf is our brother.” — Joe Rose
Before Europeans settled in Wisconsin, there were an estimated 3,000 wolves thriving here, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. But European settlers did not consider the wolf a brother. Bounty hunters earned millions of dollars from Wisconsin taxpayers killing wolves, and by 1960, there were none left in the state.
Since the passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1973, wolves have slowly returned to Wisconsin. Dick Thiel, a retired DNR biologist, documented the presence of wolves breeding in Wisconsin in the winter of 1977-78. That spring, two packs had pups. “The founders of those first packs probably moved into Wisconsin from Minnesota and approved of each other enough to develop into packs,” Thiel says. From that fragile start, the wolf population in Wisconsin has grown to almost 900.
Ongoing research supports the Anishinaabe view of how wolves are similar to humans. The animals share strong social bonds, form tight family groups, live collectively to raise pups and nurture injured members. They are curious, caring, intelligent and adaptable, all traits that have fueled their rapid recovery.
But their adaptability and intelligence may not be enough to save them from legislation now on the docket in Washington. In a rare moment of agreement, both U.S. senators representing Wisconsin — Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin — are supporting the delisting of gray wolves. U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wausau) is sponsoring a similar bill in the House. Delisting would remove the animals from federal protection and allow them to be hunted in Wisconsin.
Rose says the tribe feels its fate is connected to that of the wolves. “We have four small wolf packs on our Bad River Reservation,” he says. “We protect them, and we are against the hunting of wolves. The wolf is our brother. Whatever the fate of the wolf, the fate of the Anishinaabe will be the same.”
A former DNR wolf expert, Adrian Wydeven, describes the on-again, off-again pattern of federal protection over the past 10 years. Gray wolves were delisted from federal protection in 2007. Protection was reinstated in 2008. They were delisted again in 2009, returned to protected status two months later and then once again delisted in 2012.
“When the Wisconsin Legislature wrote its own wolf hunting bill in 2012, it set very aggressive controls on the wolf population,” says Wydeven, who is currently coordinator at the Timber Wolf Alliance, which is associated with Northland College. “I think there was an overreaction by the Legislature because of their frustration with the process. Almost a backlash.”
Then a federal court once again protected the gray wolf in 2014.
If successful, what would the new 2017 delisting legislation mean for Wisconsin’s wolves? Returning control to the state would bring back legal wolf hunting, which has divided biologists, environmentalists, farmers and residents. Although the Wisconsin DNR would once again be in charge of regulating wolves and a wolf hunt, it would not allow Isthmus to interview its wolf specialists. All questions were handled by Jim Dick, the department’s communications director. “The DNR agrees with the scientific determination of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Dick says. “Wolves are recovered in the Great Lakes region, and management authority should be returned to the states.”
Wydeven was one of a number of wolf experts who signed a letter in November 2015 supporting delisting, but he has major concerns about the ways wolf hunting and trapping were previously permitted in Wisconsin.
The DNR wolf management plan was prepared in 1999 and has not been updated. “At that time, there were just over 200 wolves in the state, and the plan set a target of 350 outside of Indian reservations,” says Wydeven. “This goal was not intended to be a ‘cap’ on the wolf population. But some people consider 350 wolves a cap and want to return the population to this level.”
Reinstating this cap would put the majority of the state’s almost 900 wolves on a hunting season hit list. The Legislature requires the DNR to have a hunting season any time wolves are not on the federal Endangered Species List. “Any hunting season should be established by extensive public input, with management authority in the hands of the department, instead of a legislative act,” says Wydeven.
Counting Wisconsin’s wolves is no simple task. Until 2012 the DNR would hold a public meeting each April where all the stakeholders gathered to share information and create a map that identified the location of each wolf pack and the number of wolves in each pack. That produced a credible population estimate.
“The information came from volunteer and DNR wolf trackers, DNR pilots, weekly monitoring of radio-collared wolves, and collection of public reports of wolf observations,” says Wydeven. “During the current winter, about 170 volunteers and 30 DNR staff are combing wolf country for tracks, along with some 60 radio-collared wolves being monitored weekly by airplane.”
But once there was a wolf hunt, volunteers did not want their data made available to the public, Wydeven says. The DNR also didn’t think it was appropriate to show in great detail where the packs were located. So since 2012 the wolf count is summarized in-house at the DNR rather than at a public meeting.
“How to count something as elusive as wolves, or any creature, in an area the size of a state, is a demanding task,” says John Vucetich, a widely respected wolf population biologist at the Michigan Technological University School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. “More importantly, what is relevant is not a specific number, but what problems wolves are causing from a human perspective.”
Mary Falk says dogs protect her livestock from wolves.
Mary Falk and her husband have lived near the Minnesota border of northern Wisconsin for 30 years raising sheep, goats and cattle for their dairy operation. There are eight lakes connected by a waterway within two miles of their farm. Wildlife moves along the waterway like a highway, and wolves follow the wildlife.
“We are surrounded by wildlife. That’s why we moved here,” she says. Compared to coyotes and hunting hounds, Falk says, “as far as I’m concerned, the wolves have been the easiest to deal with. They seem to be smarter and more judicious about how they spend their energy.”
“When you have a predator problem, you keep adding guard dogs. We found the magic number for us is eight. Wolves don’t have the time and energy to deal with guard dogs. It’s a head game. The dogs are saying, ‘I see you! I hear you! I smell you!’ That means the game is up. Wolves rely on stealth, so they just move on. But coyotes are like mini-wolves on meth. They don’t give up.”
There is a belief that in northern Wisconsin, wolves are uniformly feared and disliked. But although acceptance of wolves increases the farther away one lives from wolf country, a survey on public attitudes toward wolves and wolf management in Wisconsin completed by the DNR in 2014 shows that the majority of residents, like Falk, are pro-wolf, even in the north.
Over 80 percent of respondents outside wolf range felt that wolves are “important members of the ecological community” and “have a right to exist,” and over 65 percent of in-range residents agree. Among the survey respondents within wolf range, “maintaining the same number of wolves” was the most frequently selected response.
According to Wydeven, the survey hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity. “I’m not sure the results are exactly what the state and DNR administrations were hoping for. I think they wanted to demonstrate more negative attitudes that would have supported more aggressive controls on the wolf population.”
Many of Wisconsin’s Native American tribes contend their concerns have been disregarded. “Wolves were never really seen as threatening or frightening or even as competition to the tribes, like the way many deer hunters view them,” says Peter David, wildlife biologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. “They think of the wolf as their brother. If you saw signs of wolf when you were hunting, you knew you were in country with a healthy deer population that would support you as well as the wolf.”
In general, when hunting quotas are set, the tribes can claim half the legal harvest, and in deer management there has generally been agreement between the tribes and the state.
“When the state pushed for a wolf hunting season, the tribes did not lay claim to their half,” David says. “When it became clear that the tribe did not want to harvest wolves and wasn’t going to hunt them, the state exercised its legal ability to reclaim this half of the quota of wolves for nontribal hunters. So essentially, the tribes cannot protect the wolves by not harvesting them.”
George Meyer, former head of the DNR and now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, argues that hunting ultimately benefits wolves by keeping their numbers at a sustainable level. He says that most wolf biologists — as well as the Michigan and Minnesota departments of natural resources — support wolf hunting.
“There are no predators for the wolf except humans. To keep the wolf population within biological limits and social carrying limits, you need a harvest,” Meyer says. “It’s necessary for the species and also necessary for protection of private property, whether it’s livestock or hunting dogs or pets or in some cases humans.” But what problems do wolves actually cause?
In December, Baldwin wrote to the Senate leadership calling for de-listing, arguing it’s a matter of public safety and economic imperative. “Families are worried about their ability to stay safe, farmers report livestock losses and losses in dairy productivity from stressed cows, and pets have been killed by wolves that are straying closer to yards, farms and towns,” Baldwin wrote. “In addition, sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts report declines in the population of deer, elk and other wildlife.”
Baldwin, whose office declined an interview request with Isthmus, has made similar arguments in the past. In a 2011 letter to the state Legislature she wrote, “Last year in Wisconsin, 47 farms lost at least 75 livestock animals and saw injuries to six more.”
But livestock depredation by wolves, for which farmers are compensated, is relatively small, considering that there are almost 70,000 farms in Wisconsin and 3.5 million cattle.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin is calling to end federal wolf protections.
Wydeven noted that the current wolf population would not need to be reduced to successfully manage livestock problems. “In 2014, when we counted 746 wolves in Wisconsin, the DNR was allowed to remove problem wolves, and landowners could get permits to kill wolves that were causing livestock losses on their property. The number of farms with depredation and animal kills was similar to that when the wolf population was 350.”
“I can’t say that the hunting season had no impact,” says Wydeven. “But the modeling we have done suggests that control by government trappers is probably the most effective way of reducing depredation.”
Wolves appear to present no risk to humans. There are no documented cases of physical harm to humans from wolves in Wisconsin. In contrast, the most recent data posted on the Department of Transportation website states that in 2013 there were over 18,000 motor vehicle collisions with deer in the state, resulting in over 400 human injuries and eight deaths.
As far as human safety concerns, Thiel says the DNR is proactive with wolves when they have been delisted, killing or removing them from heavily populated areas “because of the threat that they could pose. It’s a very loose analogy to a campground bear in which wolves get accustomed to people and lose their fear of them. The decision is always made to protect the public.”
Regarding Baldwin’s concern about the wolf’s impact on the deer herd, Thiel says, “There is a perceived view of competition for whitetail deer. Some hunters, not all, feel that wolves deplete the population of whitetails to the point where it is not viable to hunt. But studies going on for 40 years don’t show that.”
The deer population is down from its peak in 2000, but it is estimated that there are two to three times as many deer in the state today as there were in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when there were no wolves at all. If the deer population were to increase, it is likely that motor vehicle collisions and resultant human injuries would also go up.
Another argument from wolf hunt advocates is that a legal culling season actually protects wolves by lowering the number of poached animals.
Adrian Treves, an associate professor of environmental studies and the founder of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab at UW-Madison, has spent the last several years testing that hypothesis. His conclusion, published in February in the Journal of Mammalogy, disputes conventional wisdom.
“Culling doesn’t raise tolerance as far as we can tell. The effect seems clear that poaching increased every time the government had this authority to cull.”
The study compares periods between 2003 and 2012, when state officials had the authority to hunt and kill wolves and when they did not. “That gave us the wherewithal to compare periods with and without culling,” Treves says.
Treves joins other environmental advocates in arguing it’s simply too soon to delist wolves and that more study is needed.
“The state management plans are inadequate and completely outdated,” says Melissa Smith, executive director of Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf and Wildlife, and Great Lakes field representative for the Endangered Species Coalition. “It’s 2017. We’ve learned a lot about wolves since the 1999 wolf management plan, and wolves have shown that they are more adaptable to human activity than previously thought.”
Smith is also troubled by the second clause of the proposed federal delisting bill, which states that no judicial review of the law will be allowed.
“In this political climate, do our representatives really want to sponsor legislation that takes away the power of citizens to keep our government accountable through the courts?” Smith asks.
Smith expects the bill will pass within the next month, and she is worried that it will make other endangered species more vulnerable. “Any species could be next, and there will be a horse-trading of any species that gets in the way of big agriculture, oil or gas. I think it’s an attack on the integrity of the Endangered Species Act.”
When asked about the DNR’s implementation plans should the management of wolves return to Wisconsin, spokesman Dick had little to say: “The management strategy is still a work in progress so there are no final details to provide yet.”
Thiel, who has worked with wolves since their return to the state, takes the long view about the future of wolves in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes area. “We know that these animals are very resilient as a population. They can take some punishment and rebound quickly under reasonable management.”
But others are not as sanguine. “I think our citizens need to pay close attention to this issue,” says Treves, echoing Joe Rose’s belief that the wolf’s fate is a harbinger for all living things. “Where the wolf goes, our other natural assets held in public trust will go the same way.”