PRESS EDITORIAL: How the Wisconsin wolf hunt led to a bloody mess

What happens when political advocacy organizations, legislators and judges take over wildlife management?

A fiasco like the 2021 Wisconsin wolf hunt happens.

Forced by a lawsuit, influenced by politics and enabled by faulty legislation, the state sanctioned wolf hunt in February quickly became a free-for-all in the north woods during which 216 gray wolves were killed in 60 hours before alarmed and embarrassed Department of Natural Resources officials shut down the hunt.

The quota for the hunt was 119 wolves. The number killed—82% more than the projected limit—amounted to nearly 20% of the estimated number of wolves in Wisconsin.

The DNR, the agency charged with the responsibility to monitor and manage the viability of the population of the animals that at one time had been virtually exterminated in the state, did not want last month’s hunt to be held. Interfering forces took the decision out of its hands.

After the Trump administration removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list in January, the DNR began planning for a wolf hunt. A state law passed in 2012—the only one like it in the U.S.—requires an annual wolf hunting season between November and February if the animals are not on the federal endangered list. But citing the lack of time to properly organize a February hunt , the agency announced there would be a wolf hunting season in November 2021 with what it called “science based” regulation.

This was about the wolves, land and hunters of Wisconsin, but it didn’t remain a parochial state issue for long. A national hunting advocacy group based in Kansas called Hunter Nation sued to require the DNR to schedule an immediate hunt.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Hunter Nation, which advertises that it is “led by America’s greatest hunters and patriots” who are “committed to God, family, country and the outdoor lifestyle,” by the conservative advocacy law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. The lawsuit cited a letter issued by Republican state legislators calling for a February wolf hunt.

A Jefferson County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the hunting organization.

On Feb. 22, hunters and their dogs took to the forests to start what was to have been a six-day wolf hunting season. Registered kills mounted so quickly that the hunt was stopped in less than three days and, the DNR wildlife director admitted, should have been ended earlier. Hunters using trailing hounds killed 86% of the wolves taken in the abbreviated hunt.

Widespread condemnation of the wolf killing came from conservation and animal protection organizations, some of the latter saying the hunt would adversely affect reproduction in the wolf population because it was held during the breeding season.

The Sierra Club called the Wisconsin wolf hunt “an unprecedented and extreme departure from sound, science-based wildlife practices.”         

That comment rings true, but this misguided and mismanaged wolf hunt did not necessarily represent a significant setback for the recovery of the species. The resurgence of gray wolves is regarded as one of the most successful achievements of the Endangered Species Act. By 2011, the population of the animals had resurged to the point where the Obama administration said they could be removed from federal protection. A federal court disagreed, and the gray wolf remained on the endangered list until January 2021. Meanwhile, the wolf population in Wisconsin made steady gains and was estimated to number more than 1,000 before the February hunt.

The significance of last month’s Wisconsin hunt is that it demonstrated that when political operators highjack wildlife management decisions that should be made by conservation experts, recovering species can be left vulnerable. With 20% of a state’s wolf population wiped out in two and a half days, the danger of poorly regulated hunting was on vivid display.

Adrian Treves, a professor of environmental science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said, “I think what the Wisconsin wolf hunt shows is how quickly a determined group of hunters and poachers can reduce a wolf population to the level where it’s going to be endangered again.”

It was hunting, of course, that made wolves all but extinct in the lower 48 states by the mid-20th century.

Despite their well-deserved reputation as ferocious predators, wolves are fragile creatures in a world dominated by humans. Their numbers need to be managed at a stable level that is sustainable yet controlled to avoid overpopulation that leads to unacceptable contact with humans and their domestic animals and pets.

Hunters certainly have a role in that, but it is one that has to be carefully regulated to prevent excesses like those of the February hunt. Getting rid of the unfortunate distinction that makes Wisconsin the only state that allows wolf hunting with dogs should be part of that regulation. Wolves are not hunted to put wolf tenderloin on the table or to make wolf fur hats. They are hunted for sport, and they deserve a sporting chance.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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