Wisconsin Oversteps In Wolf Hunt
This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States.
One of the final acts of the Trump Administration in late 2020 was to remove the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed the species, which was once nearly extinct in the lower 48 states, in January. The wolves now number more than 6,000 in the northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes states.
In Wisconsin, a 2012 state law requires an annual wolf hunt when the animals are not under federal protection. State wildlife officials had begun planning for a hunt next November, but were forced by a lawsuit from an out-of-state hunting group to hold one before the end of February. That hunt lasted only three days before state officials shut it down: Licensed hunters killed 216 wolves in that time, more than 80 percent over the allowed quota of 119, and nearly 20 percent of the state’s estimated 1,000-plus wolves.
SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Danielle Kaeding and environmental science professor Adrian Treves about how hunters were able to kill so many wolves so fast—and what effect this year’s hunt might have on the health of wolf populations in the state.
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Danielle Kaeding is a reporter in Wisconsin Public Radio’s Superior Bureau in Superior, Wisconsin.
Adrian Treves is a professor of Environmental Studies at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wisconsin.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. It’s time to check in on the state of science.
SPEAKER 1: This is Kit–
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IRA FLATOW: Local stories of national significance– one of the last acts of the Trump administration late last year was the delisting of the gray wolf. That means the removal of this once endangered species from the Federal Endangered Species list.
Thanks to a century of conservation efforts, there are now more than 6,000 in the lower 48 states. But what happens when people are then allowed to hunt a once endangered carnivore like the gray wolf? Producer Christie Taylor has been watching a story in her home state of Wisconsin. Hey, Christie.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey there, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: All right, Wisconsin had a wolf hunt last week. Tell us about it, please.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, after the Trump administration’s delisting last year, state wildlife officials began to plan a hunt to start this fall. This is required by state law. It’s happened before.
But a hunting group from Kansas sued for the state to hold one much sooner. So a hunt kicked off last week.
IRA FLATOW: Pretty quick, no?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, that’s what the state was trying to argue. They said that they needed more time to assess the wolf population, plan quotas, and make sure they issued the right number of licenses to ensure hunters didn’t kill too many.
IRA FLATOW: OK, so how did the hunt go?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, it depends on who you ask. But it definitely went fast. The state decided on a quota of 119 wolves for hunters outside the state’s Native American tribes. They claimed another 80 permits for themselves. And the hunt ended just a few days later. By that time, non-indigenous hunters had killed almost double their quota, which if the state has 1,000 wolves in it right now– that’s the last estimate– it means that 20% of them are dead now.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s a lot. Is it not?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It certainly sounds like a lot. So I talked to Danielle Kaeding, a reporter at Wisconsin Public Radio. And my first question for her was just whether that death toll was likely to go up at all.
DANIELLE KAEDING: It shouldn’t go up. You know, I’ve spoken with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. And basically, they have said that they used the permits that were allocated to them– those 81 permits– to protect wolves, because they regard the wolf as a relative that’s to be revered.
What’s interesting about this one is how state wildlife officials were rushed to pull it together and come up with a quota in a matter of days. The 216 wolves that were harvested, that’s slightly over the overall quota of 200 wolves– and in the past, we’ve seen harvest levels of around 117 wolves in one season and 257 wolves in another.
So the quota is on par with what we’ve seen in the past, it’s just the amount at which hunters went over the quota that was allocated to them. We’ve never seen hunters in the state before go over the quota by nearly double in a state licensed hunt. That probably was due to the sheer number of permits that were awarded to try and make sure that hunters met that quota during the span of a week at the end of February.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So it was the sheer number of licenses. Is there any other reason this hunting season led to so many excess wolves being killed?
DANIELLE KAEDING: Well, one reason might be the fact that the vast majority of hunters were using hounds to hunt wolves. And in the past, we’ve seen more than half or so of these wolves harvested through trapping, instead of using hounds.
Also, the fact that under state law, there’s a 24-hour notification requirement that must be made to hunters before the season closes. The state wildlife managers have said that part of the problem was that even if they wanted to close down the season sooner because they saw that they were reaching that quota, they really weren’t able to do that because of that 24-hour notice.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So I mentioned that this hunting season happened in kind of a hurry after this series of lawsuits and court appeals. Wisconsin officials, the Department of Natural Resources wanted to wait until November. What difference would that delay have made?
DANIELLE KAEDING: Well, they had opted not to hold a hunt this winter because they said that they needed more time to develop a science-based quota. They wanted to revise the state’s outdated management plan. You know, that plan was put together in 1999 and last updated in 2007. And they also wanted to gather more input from Wisconsin tribes and the public.
And in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is required to consult with tribes as part of their federal treaty rights. That was one bone of contention for the tribes, because they said that there was in no way adequate consultation with them. One of the things that they’ve been really concerned about is that this hunt was going to take place in the middle of the wolf’s breeding season. Here is Dylan Jennings, a spokesperson with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission on that note.
DYLAN JENNINGS: And our tribes have always stressed too, that especially a hunt during this time of the year would catch a lot of wolves in the middle of that breeding season, potentially and really vulnerable positions. And that’s pretty much spot on. It looks like that’s what we’ve seen here– kind of the massacring of wolves around the state.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So this number of wolves, it sounds so big. Again, 20% of the population. What are people saying about whether it’s bad news for this previously endangered species to have lost so many this year?
DANIELLE KAEDING: Environmental and wildlife groups are very much opposed to this hunt. You know, some of the things that they’ve cited is that this was a trophy hunt that had the potential to break up wolf packs and that Wisconsin had never held a hunt before during the wolves breeding season. Just the lack of an updated plan and using the most or the best available science.
One word that they used was a “slaughter” and a “massacre” of wolves here in Wisconsin. Hunters for their part, have contended that they have a right to hunt wolves under the law here in Wisconsin. And the fact that they blew past the harvest target, means there’s a lot more wolves than previously thought. And that was one point that was expressed by Luke Hilgemann. And he’s the CEO of the Kansas-based group Hunter Nation.
LUKE HILGEMANN: Just proves us right that there’s an abundance of wolves in Wisconsin.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Why do hunt supporters say hunting is even necessary in the first place?
DANIELLE KAEDING: Well, they do say that they have a right to hunt wolves under the law. But they also do say that this is something that needs to happen to get the wolf population back to a sustainable level, because wolves have killed livestock and pets. And that was a point that was again, expressed by Luke Hilgemann.
LUKE HILGEMANN: It’s about managing this resource, just like we do with deer and turkeys other wild resources across the board. Managing their numbers and keeping them in check is an important part of our conservation puzzle and one that we’re excited to participate in.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So assuming nothing changes before November, the state is required by law to have another wolf hunt, could we see different quotas or tighter regulations of other kinds before that happens?
DANIELLE KAEDING: I think that will definitely be part of the conversation is, how does this hunt move forward if it will be in fact, held this November? One of the things that hunters had feared would happen is that this would be their only chance to harvest wolves because President Joe Biden has issued a broad executive order that would review agency rules. And that includes the wolves delisting.
Environmental and wildlife groups have also sued to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to delist the wolf across most of the country. So that’s definitely one of the things that tribes and animal rights groups want to see is more input and more consultation regarding, especially how this hunt has gone. Dylan Jennings with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission has said the fact that the state couldn’t control the quota, or enforce that, that’s a red flag. The state wildlife managers have also said that the sheer number of permits that were awarded to reach that quota in such a short time frame should also be taken a look at if we’re going to have a chance of hitting any kind of target in the future.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So is this whole conversation moot if the Biden administration ends up relisting the gray wolf as federally endangered?
DANIELLE KAEDING: That is a great question. You know, in the past, what we’ve seen when the animal was placed back on the Endangered Species list after a judge’s ruling in 2014 is that basically, the state abandoned its wolf management plan and efforts to revise that. So I think that’s a question of whether or not the state would follow through and update its plan and continue to look at ways to manage the wolf if in fact, the Biden administration does move to release the wolf.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you so much for the time, Danielle.
DANIELLE KAEDING: Yeah, thanks for having me, Christie. I appreciate it.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: That was Danielle Kaeding, a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio. Next, I want to bring in Dr. Adrian Treves, who is a professor of environmental studies and science at the Nelson Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Welcome, Adrian.
ADRIAN TREVES: Thanks so much, Christie.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So one of the big questions we have ahead is how the overhunting this year might have affected the recovery trajectory that gray wolves have been on in the state. Do we have data on how much loss the wolves can actually take?
ADRIAN TREVES: Just from a strict scientific standpoint, the current status of Wisconsin’s wolves is precarious right now, because the hunting occurred during the mating seasons. In January and February every winter, male and female– alpha males and alpha females– will be bonding, mating, and potentially getting pregnant. And the hunting interrupted that.
So we can’t expect normal reproduction in the coming year in 2021. And we actually have no idea how badly the reproduction will be affected and harmed. The best guess is it’ll be serious. A less conservative estimate would suggest almost no successful reproduction this year. We don’t really have any idea of how the wolf population is going to do for the rest of this year.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I asked our last guests this question. But I also want your stance as a biologist. Why were the numbers of wolves killed by hunters so high in such a short period of time. I mean, we’re talking about 200-plus wolves in three days. Again, that’s the official tally, which is something like a third of the total number of wolves killed in the last three wolf hunts in Wisconsin. How did that happen?
ADRIAN TREVES: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. This is an unprecedented hunt in the sense that it occurs in January or February with a lot of snow on the ground here in Wisconsin. We’ve never had a wolf hunt under those conditions. They’ve always ended at the end of December over a much longer time period with a lower rate of killing.
So part of it is the snow cover on the ground. It makes it easier to track wolves when there’s snow cover, especially if you’re using hounds and snowmobiles, right, the speed of the snowmobile, the sense of smell of these scent hounds, pursuing wild wolves through the winter landscape. That’s part of the reason why that large number of wolves was killed so quickly and went over the quota so quickly. Part of it probably also has to do with the organization of wolves hunters and poachers who are tracking wolves in anticipation of being granted permission to do this hunt.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: All of this happened because the gray wolf was delisted from the Federal Endangered Species list this year. For a species coming back from such a deeply endangered status like the gray wolves, how do you decide when the population has recovered in the first place? Like, how do you decide that you have enough wolves?
ADRIAN TREVES: That’s a great question, Christie. And what I’d like your listeners to understand is that the Endangered Species Act, which regulates the question you’ve asked– the Endangered Species Act does not mention the number of animals of an endangered species needed to be called recovered. And that was part of the wisdom of the US Congress in 1973 when the Endangered Species Act was passed.
But instead, the Endangered Species Act specifies that a species has to recover all or a significant portion of its range. And its range was defined when it was listed. And for the wolf being listed– the gray wolf being listed back in the 1970s, that range for the listed species was parts or all of 30 of our states. So deciding when gray wolves are recovered, requires us to figure out– actually, it requires us to make a value judgment about that phrase, “all or a significant portion of its range.”
But scientists, like myself, all over the country have weighed in on this question. I would say the consensus among scientists is that the current 15% to 20% of the historic range is not a significant portion of the range. And for other reasons, as well, the gray wolves are not recovered.
Now, let me just explain that the Scientific Peer Review Panel in 2019 that I sat on, which formally advised the US Fish and Wildlife Service on this question of delisting gray wolves nationwide. Four out of five, if not all five of us found major shortcomings in the science. And several of us pointed out the problem that wolves were not recovered across a significant portion of range, and therefore, they’re not secure. They shouldn’t be delisted.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a quick reminder. This is Science Friday. I’m Christie Taylor.
Since one of the big questions seems to be– there are people who oppose the hunt. There are people who are in favor of the hunt, who say that well, it’s needed to– hunting wolves is the same kind of management as hunting deer or turkey, keeping numbers in check, preventing predation of livestock. What do you think is the better management alternative?
ADRIAN TREVES: So wolves are found in social units we call packs that are like extended families. Generally, all the individuals are related. Occasionally, an unrelated wolf will join the family unit or pack. It’s not just a loose group. It’s a multigenerational group with cooperative breeding, cooperative territoriality, and cooperative hunting.
And so when humans intervene and kill one or two members of a pack, especially the alpha male or female, we often see the pack structure destabilize. The pack may disband. And we see behaviors that are rather unusual in comparison to an intact wolf pack. Those intact multigenerational wolf packs are often extremely effective in keeping their neighbors at bay. So there’s less wolf-to-wolf conflict, or at least fewer transgressions of the territory.
And they’re extremely effective in hunting their prey. Whereas, smaller packs and those with unstable structures that have been affected by human lethal management seem to be more likely to attack domestic animals and wander the landscape in search of easy food. Because as a team, they’ve been disrupted, or had their team destroyed. And the survivors are often hungry, looking for food and unable to hunt wild prey as effectively.
I think what the Wisconsin wolf hunt shows us 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. But basically, we already knew that, because the history of wolves in the US is one of eradication. They actually need more care than they’ve been given to date.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you so much for joining me today.
ADRIAN TREVES: Thank you, Christie, and your team at Science Friday. I’m a big fan.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Dr. Adrian Treves is a professor of environmental studies and environmental science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. For Science Friday, I’m Christie Taylor.
Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.