A controversial move to allow hunters in Wisconsin to kill up to 300 wolves this year could imperil the state’s wolf population, conservation biologists say. The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board voted yesterday to approve the quota for the November hunt, ignoring a recommendation from an advisory panel to limit the kill to 130 wolves.
The decision comes amid national scrutiny of how Wisconsin officials are managing the state’s gray wolves (Canis lupus), which until January were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The following month, hunters killed 218 wolves in 3 days—an estimated 20% of the state’s wolf population—during a permitted hunt, even though officials had capped the legal kill at 119 animals. Since then, researchers believe poachers have killed more wolves. The string of events has helped create substantial uncertainty about the size of the state’s wolf population, previously estimated at about 1000 animals, prompting some scientists to urge officials to permit hunters to kill just a small number of wolves in the upcoming hunt—or none at all.
The natural resources board, made up of political appointees, ignored those pleas. And it brushed aside a lower quota recommended by a state Wolf Harvest Advisory Committee, made up of biologists, hunters, wolf advocates, and tribal members.
The new quota could “result in a major reduction of the state wolf population and reduce the population to levels observed in the early 2000s,” when just a few hundred wolves roamed the state, fears Adrian Wydeven, a wildlife biologist who led the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’s (DNR’s) wolf program from 1990 to 2013.
A 2012 state law requires Wisconsin to hold a wolf hunt whenever gray wolves are not federally protected. To help set a kill quota, DNR can look at population estimates derived from both territory mapping—which includes tracking, aerial observations, and data from collared wolves—and modeling that draws on a variety of data to estimate the population. But in setting the new quota, the agency opted to use only the modeling approach, which scientists say often produces higher population estimates. If the estimates are too high, researchers note, a hunt could do more damage to the population than anticipated. (DNR declined a request to comment.)
A recent study concluded that hunters have already killed a significant portion of Wisconsin’s wolves. It found that between April 2020 and April 2021, permitted hunters and poachers killed up to one-third of the state’s estimated 1126 wolves. And uncertainty about how many of the wolf pups born this year have survived means it is difficult to know the current state of the population, notes Adrian Treves, a lead author of the study and a biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In written comments sent to board members before yesterday’s vote, Treves warned that the uncertainty “is so vast that it would be reckless to authorize a November 2021 hunt without gathering more data about the full impact of the February 2021 hunt.”
Some researchers say howl surveys—in which observers listen for calls made by wolf pups—suggest wolf reproduction is down. Wydeven, who now works with Wisconsin’s Green Fire, a group that promotes science-based management of natural resources, conducts the nighttime surveys from July through September with other volunteers. Usually, they hear wolf pups in about 80% of the packs they monitor, he says. But since the February hunt, observers have heard pups in just 50% of the packs.
Given such findings, Wydeven says he was “surprised and very disappointed” by the new quota. “It’s frustrating in that it seems like every time you make some steps forward in wolf conservation you end up taking steps back as well. … With this last winter hunt, we probably eliminated packs in areas and reduced some of their range. If we aggressively harvest them again this fall, we’re probably going to continue to lose some packs and have somewhat of an unstable wolf population.”