As snow covered the frozen ground last February, Wisconsin’s wolf packs had just concluded their months-long internal battle for dominance to determine which two members would fill the alpha roles. It’s a consequential period for the animal — in most packs, only the alpha male and female will mate to produce a litter.

But Wisconsin had a different plan in store for wolves. It was then, in the middle of the breeding season, that a legal decision spurred the state’s first wolf hunt in six years.

When a court overturned the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s decision not to hold a wolf hunt, hunters across the state jumped at an opportunity they had missed due to the species’ endangered protection status. Aided by the snow cover, which made for easier tracking, hunters killed 218 wolves over a four day period — well over their set quota of 119 wolves. A wolf hunt that previously took 52 days to conduct lasted only half a week.

This year, the debate surrounding the 2021-22 wolf hunt has been effectively settled but in the opposite direction. In October, a Dane county judge put a hold on the wolf hunt until the DNR could come up with a new species management plan and hunting regulations, as is required by law. The final death blow to the hunt came earlier this month when a federal judge reinstated federal protections for the species. The protections supersede Wisconsin’s authority to manage the species — as long as they remain in place, a wolf hunt will not occur.

But history has shown that federal protection is rarely permanent. Though packs will be spared from the overkill witnessed last year, the future of the gray wolf remains unclear as hunters, wildlife conservation advocates, farmers and tribal governments continue their decades-long fight with renewed attention over how best to manage the species in Wisconsin.

History of the hunt

The gray wolf’s historical range once included most of the western United States, extending as far east as Michigan and as far south as Texas. Intensive eradication efforts, driven in part by cattlemen frustrated with wolf depredation of their livestock, wiped out the wolf in most of the contiguous United States. Between 1960 and 1975, there were no breeding wolves in Wisconsin.

That all changed when wolves were added to the endangered species list in 1974. Federal law prohibited killing wolves and required the creation of a recovery plan to restore the species’ population.

Initially, wolves struggled to gain a foothold in Wisconsin. Though packs dispersed into the state from the Minnesota border, a viral outbreak dropped the wolf population to a low of 15 in the mid-1980s. Since then, wolf numbers have steadily climbed. The official state estimate from April of 2020 pinned the wolf population at 1,034 animals — well past the 350 wolf goal set in the state’s official Wolf Management Plan in 1999.

Wisconsin’s annual wolf hunt began in 2012 after then-governor Scott Walker signed a bill mandating the state hold a wolf hunt every year between November and February. When a federal judge put wolves back on the endangered species list in 2014, the law became powerless up until protections ended in January 2021 under a Trump-era decision. The Biden administration maintained the delisting until this February’s ruling reinstated protections.

At the time of the 2021 delisting, with less than two months to go until the closing of the wolf hunt window, Wisconsin’s DNR declined to hold a hunt due to the time it would take to consult with tribal nations and settle on a science-based quota. In response, the hunting rights advocacy group Hunter Nation sued. Feb. 11, 2021, a Jefferson county judge decided a wolf hunt must be held immediately, in accordance with the state wolf hunt law.

The resulting February hunt took a significant toll on the state’s wolf population — and not just because hunters took nearly double their quota. Since the hunt took place during the breeding season — a natural bottleneck in their population cycle — the toll was more severe, ecologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, also known as GLIFWC, Peter David said.

“If you kill [a wolf] three months earlier, there’s some chance for what is called compensation, that maybe some of the wolves that were killed were going to die of starvation or disease or something else,” David said. “Well, there’s really not the chance for that when you’re killing them at the low point in the cycle.”

During the wolf breeding season, which runs from January until March, only the alpha female and male will mate in most packs. If one of a pack’s breeding pair is killed in November, it leaves a couple months for another pack member to fill the role. But there is not enough time left in the breeding season for packs to fill a hole if an alpha is killed in February, David explained.

A recent University of Wisconsin study estimated 33% of the state’s wolf population died last winter due to legal wolf hunting and poaching. With an estimated 695 to 751 wolves remaining in the state, ecologists and animal rights activists fear allowing another hunt to take place will wash away years of progress in the species’ recovery.

For some tribal nations in Wisconsin, the wolf also holds a culturally significant place. David said the Ojibwe and other Anishinaabe people hold cultural reverence for the gray wolf, whom they call Ma’iingan.

Though land cession treaties between the Ojibwe and the U.S. guarantee them up to half of the hunting quota, the Ojibwe opt to spare their share. David’s employer, GLIFWC, represents the interests of 11 Ojibwe tribes across the Great Lakes region who maintain hunting, fishing and gathering rights through treaties signed from 1836 to 1854 when they ceded their lands to the U.S. government.

“Ma’iingan has a tremendous cultural significance to the Ojibwe tribes,” David said. “It goes all the way back to their creation story … one of the results of that creation story is an understanding that Ma’iingan and the Anishinaabe have intertwined, similar fates, and what will happen to one of them will happen to the other.”

The Ojibwe also rely on wolves for what Western science would call ecological services, David said. Wolves maintain the long-term health of white tailed deer populations and impact their grazing behavior to increase the availability of certain plants the tribes rely on for food and medicine.

Before this year’s hunt was put on hold, six Ojibwe tribes from Wisconsin filed a lawsuit alleging the DNR’s internal Natural Resources Board set the wolf hunt quota to cancel out the tribes’ decision not to hunt the wolf.

350

Those in favor of the hunt argue the current population is still far above Wisconsin’s official population goal.

CEO of Hunter Nation Luke Hilgemann — the group that successfully sued to allow the February hunt to take place — said the state should aim for the wolf population to be at 350, referring to the population goal from the 1999 plan.

An avid bowhunter, Hilgemann joined Hunter Nation after hearing a television ad profess the organization’s mission to “God, family, country, and protecting our future hunting heritage.” He participated in the February wolf hunt in which his youngest son tagged a wolf.

“Three hundred and fifty animals — we believe that’s a carrying capacity that was supported by the science at the time, and that science hasn’t changed,” Hilgemann said “And we believe that the wolf goal, the population should be at 350 animals. So whatever it takes to get us to that population, we are supportive of.”

Carrying capacity refers to the maximum number of individual animals in a species’ population that the species’ habitat and surrounding environment can indefinitely sustain. At its designated carrying capacity, a species’ population numbers become more stable.

The 350 figure is already well above the Endangered Species Act’s initial 100-wolf threshold for federally delisting the animal as endangered in the region. Historically, a combined 100 wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan was a viable number — meaning wolves have rebounded to their current population levels from even less.

But the origins of the 350 number are unclear, University of Wisconsin environmental studies professor Adrian Treves said. According to a paper he wrote, the 1999 plan claimed the number to be “a reasonable compromise between population capacity, minimum level of viability and public acceptance,” but estimates for the species’ carrying capacity at the time were significant underestimates and the plan neglected to say how public acceptance was gauged.

In the plan’s justification for the number, it uses 500 as its estimate for the wolf’s maximum biological carrying capacity — a tremendous undershot when compared to the approximately 1,000 known to have inhabited the state prior to the February wolf hunt.

The management plan hasn’t been updated since 2007, which is part of the reason the Dane County judge blocked the DNR from conducting a hunt this season in the October ruling prior to the species’ relisting.

Conflict over cattle

Brady Zuck’s quarrel with the wolf is the same quarrel Wisconsin farmers have had with the creature for nearly 200 years. As the president-elect of the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, he’s heard members complain about wolves attacking livestock and about cattle not grazing properly when wolves are in the area.

The WCA aren’t advocating for the elimination of the wolf from Wisconsin — in fact, a recent press release applauded its recovery. But they do feel the species is overpopulated and causing issues. The obvious solution for Zuck and other cattlemen is to reduce the population through the state’s annual wolf hunt, organized by the Department of Natural Resources.

“I don’t think any cattlemen have said we don’t want any wolves period, but when they become an issue, when they’re overpopulated, we need to have a way to deal with that problem,” Zuck said. “That’s why we’ve advocated for a sustainable wolf hunt as cattlemen. That gives us the viable options that are legal and approved by the DNR to help us control the population.”

Zuck said it was frustrating the current wolf population is well beyond what cattlemen are comfortable with. To him, the wolf reestablishment has been too successful.

“When they reintroduced the wolf, Wisconsin cattlemen were a part of that conversation.” Zuck said. “And we all ultimately agreed that [350] wolves was the target population in our state.”

When wolves roam near pastures, cattle are constantly worried about a wolf attack, Zuck said. They don’t graze normally and can’t get adequate nutrition as a result. Under wolves’ current protection status, cattlemen can’t kill the specific wolves engaging in depredation. A 2010 study on anti-predator behavior in cattle found cows graze closer to one another and in more sinusoidal paths when in the presence of wolves than they would otherwise.

Though cattlemen are compensated when wolves kill livestock, Zuck said the compensation fails to take into account the time and effort spent raising the particular animal, or the lost income from not being able to sell the animal later on. Zuck added there is also no current way to compensate for weight loss in livestock that aren’t getting proper nutrition because of the presence of wolves.

“The compensation is definitely helpful for the loss of that animal, but you think of a cow that you fed all fall, all winter, all spring,” Zuck said. “There’s some compensation available, but it probably hasn’t captured all the costs that are incurred by the producer.”

Last year, the state paid out just under $200,000 for wolf depredation incidents. Compensation was given for cattle, calves and even dogs that were killed or injured by wolves.

From an industry perspective, the number of cattle killed and injured by wolves in a year is very minor, comparable to the number going to slaughter every 30 minutes, David said. Still, he acknowledged that for an individual farmer suffering a loss, it can be a big problem.

Still, David feels hunting wolves is not the solution given other alternatives. Around 80% of the wolves killed in the February hunt came from public lands, whereas livestock depredation happens on private lands, David said.

“People say, well, we should be hunting wolves to address [wolf depredation], but in fact, we know that hunting is extremely ineffective doing that,” David said. “People just don’t target the few wolves that are causing extra problems on the landscape … There’s other much more effective ways of dealing with the livestock depredation issue.”

A researcher in UW’s Carnivore Coexistence Lab Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila found that wolf hunts are not only ineffective means of reducing wolf depredations, but they actually cause such incidents to increase.

Treves, who collaborated with Santiago-Ávila on the research, said there are two hypotheses for why wolf hunts cause an increase in attacks on cattle. The first is that wolf packs function as a cohesive team and when they lose some of their members, they can’t hunt as effectively. This might lead them to target cattle or calves out of desperation.

Alternatively, neighboring wolf packs may try to take territory from a pack that lost members in a wolf hunt. The resulting chaos might lead stray wolves to target cattle since they are predictable prey and can be hunted by a single wolf.

“Lethal methods — people perceive them to be effective, but in fact, lethal methods have a lot of spillover effects through the harming of the social structure of wolf packs that exacerbates risk [of depredation] for adjacent properties,” Santiago-Ávila said.

Instead of wolf hunts, Treves said there are three proven methods cattlemen can turn to to reduce depredation, including using certain dog breeds to guard over cattle is one solution and placing vertical flags at regular intervals along a fence line. Cattlemen with especially large pastures or groups of farms in the immediate vicinity of one another could also employ range riders, which are essentially cowboys who practice low-stress livestock handling.

All three methods have been proven successful through “gold standard“ research, Treves said. Gold standard is a term borrowed from the biomedical community and refers to randomized controlled trials, which directly compares outcomes from experimental groups that are administered a treatment and control groups who are given a placebo.

“We have three good, proven methods for protecting livestock from wolves, and so those should be used over an unproven method like lethal control,” Treves said.

Even so, Zuck said it’s useful to have lethal control as an option when other methods fail.

Hunters suspect overpopulation

Hilgemann questions the state’s wolf population estimate. He criticized Wisconsin’s calculation model for not adequately taking geography into account. To Hilgemann, the speed of the February wolf hunt is indicative of a much larger wolf population.

“We don’t think that the Department of Natural Resources has done a good job of actually calculating how many wolves there are in the state,” Hilgemann said. “We hear from hunters all across the state who are having wolves appear on their game cameras and seeing them when they’re out in the woods. We just think that there’s a lot more wolves than 1,000 of them running around on the landscape.”

Hilgemann brought up the additional concern that wolves compete with hunters for their game. He pointed to data released by Wisconsin Wolf Facts, a coalition partner of Hunter Nation, which showed wolves kill more deer than hunters in four Wisconsin counties.

“When the wolf is overpopulated they kill too many deer and they kill too many other game species,” Hilgemann said. “And that’s something that takes away from our ability to bring home game for our families, our friends and our neighbors.”

Wisconsin’s deer population currently sits at 1.6 million deer, far too high for wolves to exhibit any significant population control on a state level, Treves said. He shared a wolf fact sheet, put together by Project Coyote, an animal rights advocacy group which seeks to foster coexistence with wildlife, showing hunters themselves kill around nine times more than the roughly 18,000 deer that wolves kill annually.

Nonetheless, on a local level, wolves can have an affect on deer populations, Treves said. 

“Deer avoid wolves, clearly, so at a local level that could affect people’s detection of deer, but not by reducing the numbers of deer — it’s by the deer’s own behavioral response to predators, avoiding them, in other words,” Treves said. “That could create scarcity for a hunter who happens to be hunting in the same spot as the wolves.”

The complexity of wolves

Santiago-Ávila expressed frustration that ongoing discussions about wolves ignore the species’ stake in the conversation. He said he feels policy makers ignore scientific evidence showing wolves are thinking, conscious beings because it carries ethical implications for how people ought to treat the animal.

Adding to a body of evidence on emotion in wolves and dogs, a recent study from Durham University found wolves communicate at least nine emotions, including curiosity, surprise, joy and anger, through facial expressions.

Santiago-Ávila said this science converges with an Indigenous understanding of the animal as sentient beings and plays a role in Ojibwe opposition to wolf hunts.

The Ojibwe tribes are not opposed to judicial lethal control of specific wolves engaged in depredation, but they view the wolf harvest as nothing more than a trophy hunt and an illegitimate reason for killing the animal, David said.

“In the Ojibwe worldview, you put some significance on taking any animal’s life, and there has to be a specific need, or a purpose for that,” David said. “And that purpose hasn’t really seemed to exist yet for wolves.”