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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin’s Wolf Woes Pale Compared to Deer Dramas

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

One can’t help but admire how hard Wisconsin lawmakers and the Natural Resources Board worked in January to force the DNR to quickly reopen a hunting/trapping season on gray wolves.

They ultimately failed, but the process felt like 2012 at times. You’ll recall the Obama administration removed gray wolves from the federal endangered species list in 2011, spurring state Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, to push through Act 169 in roughly four months. Suder’s 2012 law declared Wisconsin would hold a wolf season that fall and every year from Oct. 15 through the final day of February. Lawmakers later moved the opener to November.

Suder defied Department of Natural Resources biologists, who preferred a slower, more methodical, and legally impenetrable return to wolf management. That would’ve involved pubic hearings and listening sessions, and consultations with the state’s Chippewa tribes, but Suder and his supporters blew off all those legal niceties and pushed on.

Therefore, we got to hunt and trap wolves for three years before a federal judge ignored science and returned this anything-but endangered species to the ESL in 2014. And there they stayed until the Trump administration announced Nov. 3 that federal protections would end Jan. 4 for wolves.

In early December, four weeks after that announcement, the Wisconsin DNR said it would resume Wisconsin’s hunting/trapping season Nov. 6. The DNR doesn’t consider wolf hunting/trapping an emergency need, and noted that wolves threatening pets or livestock are no longer protected.

State Sen. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, however, informed the seven-citizen NRB in mid-January that the DNR’s plan amounted to anchor-dragging. He also was miffed that the DNR literally mailed in its appearance for a joint hearing on a wolf season, which Stafsholt co-chaired Jan. 13 with Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi.

Stafsholt implored the NRB, which sets DNR policy, to hold a wolf season in February to comply with Suder’s law. The Board wanted to honor Stafsholt’s request, but backed off Jan. 22 when realizing that, just like in 2012, no one in government or the DNR had consulted the Chippewa.

Such legal formalities didn’t bother Suder or former Gov. Scott Walker, but Gov. Tony Evers has stressed his administration would honor federal court edicts for collaborative state-tribal management of the North’s fish and wildlife.

Meanwhile, we still lack clear objectives for managing Wisconsin’s wolves. Instead we argue whether a population “goal” of 350 wolves is a ceiling or a floor, even though the number has long been irrelevant in a state with over 1,200 wolves — itself a controversial estimate widely disputed.

Some scientists scoff at such debates. Luigie Boitani, a professor of conservation biology and animal ecology at the University of Rome, is renowned for his studies of Europe’s wolves and bears. At a Wildlife Society conference in Milwaukee in 2013, Boitani said our “general obsession with numbers” creates false issues.

“Everybody spends lots of money trying to know exactly how many wolves are out there, but we must ask what they really want to know,” Boitani said. “What is your concern? Is it how many wolves or how much damage? It’s easier to assess damage. Isn’t that the real goal of management? That’s why I try to slow down this crazy rush to spend lots of money to find out exactly how many wolves we have.”

Instead of giving such logical views much weight, or calculating the recreational value of hunting and trapping wolves, we keep arguing population estimates we’ll never grasp. We also keep lamenting the NRB’s Jan. 22 setback while hoping federal courts or the Biden administration don’t short-circuit this year’s Nov. 6 wolf-season opener.

Pointless fretting and nitpicking: It’s what we do.

The Jan. 22 NRB meeting caused Board member Greg Kazmierski to call the six-hour session a debacle. Board Chair Fredric Prehn said it was likely his most frustrating meeting ever. Not to be outdone, Board member Terry Hilgenberg said he’s “very concerned (that) we have failed as a board and as a department in protecting and managing our natural resources.”


Throughout their NRB terms, Kaz, Prehn and Hilgenberg have distinguished themselves as three gray-haired drama divas. Yes, most hunters, trappers, livestock producers, and pet owners across wolf country want a wolf season sooner than later. But the feds’ decision to remove the Great Lakes’ wolf population from the ESL also ended those protections in Minnesota and Michigan, and neither of those states has scheduled wolf seasons for this fall.

In fact, if you read recent accounts from those states, folks there consider Wisconsin’s Nov. 6 season aggressive but scientifically sound. A typical reaction is a December 2020 article by the Forum Communications Co. — a Fargo-based media firm with newspapers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin — that said Wisconsin “jumped to be the first state” to set a wolf season.

Much like the Michigan and Minnesota DNRs, Wisconsin’s DNR biologists welcome this opportunity to resume managing wolves, and they’ll do so responsibly. But the wolf’s future did not depend on holding a season this winter.

And we will not long remember being forced to wait till November to resume trapping, calling or chasing wolves.

Likewise, history will not remember the NRB’s Jan. 22 meeting — or bit players like Kaz, Prehn, Hilgenberg — when writing Wisconsin’s wolf-management timeline. The three amigos should be more concerned about their growing and enduring stain on Wisconsin’s deer-management history.

It’s easy to blame “deer czar” James Kroll and crossbows for the state’s ineffective deer-management system and long-term declines in hunting participation, but here’s the inconvenient truth: The Walker and Evers administrations have let Kazmierski dictate state deer policies since Walker’s victory in the November 2010 election.

Yes, Kroll wrote his recommendations for Wisconsin deer hunting in 2012, but Kaz then ignored public input for implementing Kroll’s plan, and installed his own do-little or do-nothing tactics. And since implementing the Kaz Plan in 2014, Kaz and his NRB accomplices have blocked all efforts to manage the herd and stymie chronic wasting disease.

Given 11 years of Kaz-led ineptitude, self-pity and stonewalling on Wisconsin’s whitetails and deer hunting, it’s hard to feel outraged about waiting eight months to hunt gray wolves.

Wisconsin plans to resume its wolf hunting and trapping season in November, but Minnesota and Michigan have no such plans. — Skye Goode photo

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