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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin’s New Wolf Plan Mirrors Other Plans Here and Near

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

One year after a federal judge in California put the Great Lakes’ gray wolves back on the endangered species list, many Wisconsin hunters keep working to keep them there by demanding a 350-wolf maximum.


If Wisconsin somehow held a wolf season this fall, we’d have to kill about 625 wolves to reach that cap, given that recent estimates put the wolf population at 975. That won’t fly with most Wisconsinites not named Greg Kazmierski, a member of the state’s policy-setting Natural Resources Board. In case you’ve forgotten, Kazmierski pushed a 500-wolf quota when fantasizing about a fall 2021 season.


It’s odd that Kazmierski and his enablers keep pushing such aggressive wolf quotas. Didn’t he read the warnings from “Dr. Deer,” James Kroll, the guy he hand-picked to be our deer czar a decade ago? On Page 42 of the 2012 Deer Trustee Report, Kroll offers this wise advice: “The goal should be to limit/decrease wolf-societal conflicts rather than a goal to sustain some specific number of wolves in Wisconsin.”


Kroll underlined the next sentence for emphasis: “The initial wolf-population control program should be conservative … to reduce the probability of legal challenges and, if challenged, to reduce the probability that the challenge will be successful in stopping the control program.”


The Department of Natural Resources took that prudent approach during Wisconsin’s 2012, 2013 and 2014 wolf seasons. That’s why the combined non-tribal kill exceeded the total three-year harvest goal of 528 by only 11 wolves, or 2.1% over plan.


In contrast, no one can forget what happened two years ago when the DNR let Kazmierski steer the hastily run February 2021 wolf season. Wisconsin is still suffering international scorn and ridicule for overshooting the non-tribal wolf quota by 83%. Specifically, hunters took only three days to kill 218 wolves, 99 more than the 119 allocated under federal treaties with the state’s Chippewa tribes.


Unfazed, Kazmierski used “rounding” and “simple math” six months later to settle on a 300-wolf quota for the fall 2021 season, or 2.3 times higher than the 120-wolf quota the DNR demanded. Kazmierski insisted the state’s 1999-2007 wolf-management plan capped the wolf population at 350, and led the Board’s 5-2 vote to ignore the DNR.


That season never opened in November 2021, of course. Two weeks earlier, Dane County Judge Jacob Frost noted that the DNR hadn’t updated the state’s wolf-management plan since 2007, nor had it crafted permanent rules since reopening wolf seasons in 2012. Therefore, Frost ruled the DNR couldn’t use emergency rules to open the 2021 season.


Well, the DNR finally released its updated draft (https://widnr.widen.net/s/kpfkd8nr2n/draft_wisconsin_wolf-management_plan_nov2022) of the wolf plan Nov. 10, and the public has until Feb. 28 to offer its insights. The new plan doesn’t set a population goal or cap. That riles folks who demand a goal that ignores Kroll and sets a "specific number of wolves in Wisconsin.”


The same folks also insist the old 1997-2007 wolf plan set a 350-wolf statewide cap. Truth is, that plan stated things more vaguely than General Lee’s orders at Gettysburg. On Page 6 it recommended: “a management goal of 350 wolves outside of Native American reservations. At this level ‘proactive depredation control can be authorized.’” That number would also create a buffer to ensure the wolf population didn’t plunge to 250 and risk triggering “endangered” status.


On Page 7, the plan also predicted 300 to 500 wolves could occupy Wisconsin’s best wolf habitat, and wolves in marginal habitats could push the population to 500 to 800. Read what you want into those predictions — and many do — but the plan never capped the wolf population at 350.


No one should be shocked the new plan doesn’t set a specific wolf goal. After all, thanks to Kroll’s 2012 report, Wisconsin doesn’t specify a statewide deer population, either. A committee in each county simply judges whether they have too many, enough, or too-few deer when setting its antlerless deer quotas.


Instead, the new wolf plan strives for a “healthy and sustainable wolf population that fulfills its ecological role, addresses and reduces wolf-related conflicts, and provides multiple benefits associated with wolves.”


Those objectives sound much like the goals in new management plans for Minnesota’s estimated 2,200 to 3,000 wolves, and Michigan’s 625 to 770 wolves. Neither state specifies a wolf-population cap or goal.


Goal 1 in Minnesota’s 2023-2032 plan calls only for maintaining “a well-connected and resilient wolf population.” And if wolf numbers suddenly fall below 1,600, or decline at a rate to take the population below 2,000, Minnesota will take “progressive mitigating actions.” Further, if wolf estimates exceed 3,000 for multiple consecutive years, Minnesota will “provide an opportunity for public input.”


Likewise, Michigan’s updated 2022 wolf plan seeks to maintain a “viable population,” which it defines as a 200-wolf minimum. But as the plan states on Page 23: “This minimum is not necessarily sufficient to provide all the ecological and social benefits valued by the public, (and so) 200 wolves is not a target population size. … Nor does it establish an upper limit for wolf numbers in the state.”


Obviously, wolves across the Great Lakes states exceeded scientific predictions from the 1990s. Even so, no state recommends capping wolf populations at levels biologists incorrectly predicted decades ago. Unlike most folks, when new knowledge disproves wrong predictions, biologists eventually admit they erred by updating obsolete information.


But if we insist on managing wolves to faulty predictions, we must also rewrite Wisconsin’s 2019-2029 black-bear management plan. Until this plan’s update four years ago, the statewide bear population goal was 11,300. But after some smart biologists crafted better estimating methods, the July 2022 statewide bear population exceeded 24,000.


Maybe that’s why the bear plan’s introduction on Page IV “eliminates numeric population goals and manages bear num­bers at cultural carrying capacity,” and says this on Page 19: “Population goals are clearly no longer appropriate as targets for bear management decisions.”


If that’s a bad idea or an outrageous exception to modern “adaptive management” strategies, why didn’t we demand hunters kill 12,700 bears last fall to cap the population at 11,300? Instead, hunters registered 4,100 bears in 2022, and the NRB recently set the fall 2023 bear quota at 4,575.


Is anyone claiming Wisconsin didn’t kill enough bears in 2022? Just think how many Northwoods fawns will become “happy meals” for bears this spring because we spared 8,600 bruins last fall.


With bears holding a 24-1 population advantage over wolves, maybe they should shoulder more blame for folks’ unhappy deer hunts.

Wisconsin’s new wolf-management plan doesn’t specify a population goal, which is consistent with its management plans for black bears and white-tailed deer, as well as the wolf plans in Minnesota and Michigan. — Photo Courtesy of Snapshot Wisconsin

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