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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

With Wolves, We Seldom Agree About Much

Updated: May 7, 2021

If you hear folks discussing Wisconsin’s gray wolves, try not to laugh when someone says, “I think we can all agree that …”

No. When people talk about wolves, wolf hunting, wolf trapping, wolf predation, wolf depredation, wolf behavior, wolf populations, or wolf-population goals, we never achieve union. It’s more, “I think we can all disagree that …”

We can’t even agree on the meaning of basic numbers, such as 218, the number killed during Wisconsin’s Feb. 22-24 wolf season. Since then, this claim persists: “If we can kill 218 wolves in three days, it’s obvious Wisconsin has far more wolves than the Department of Natural Resources thinks.”

Hmm. Define “far more.” The DNR’s prehunt wolf-population estimate was roughly 1,200. If you think that’s low, please explain your scientific population estimate from those three-day, 218-wolf factors. Go to the blackboard, grab the chalk, and wow us with your math.


Yes, the brief wolf season rendered 218 wolves but that gauges efficiency, not population size. Hunters using hounds capitalized on overnight snowfalls and ideal tracking and scent-trailing conditions to claim 188 (86%) of the February 2021 wolf kill.

Other methods proved nearly irrelevant. Hunters using predator calls shot 16 wolves, 7% of the total, while those sitting on stands or still-hunting (moving slowly) shot four (2%). Meanwhile, trappers—who dominated the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons—only took seven wolves (3%) with foothold traps and three (2%) with cable-restraints.

As a reminder, when trappers took 69% of the 528 wolves killed during the 2012 to 2014 seasons, those seasons averaged 60 days in length, 20 times longer than this year’s effort.

And if 218 dead wolves proves overabundance, how come none were killed in the Northwoods' Vilas County? In fact, only one wolf got shot in neighboring Iron County. The DNR documented 256 wolf packs in Wisconsin during its 2020 tracking and survey work. Did wolves mysteriously abandon Vilas and Iron counties after Valentine’s Day this year?

For the record, the DNR’s report on the 2021 wolf season shows the top five counties for wolf kills were Forest, 19; Clark and Douglas, 15 each; Burnett, 14; and Price, 12.

It’s also interesting that Adams and Juneau counties combined for eight wolf kills, and neighboring Marquette County reported seven. Think of that: Three counties halfway between La Crosse and Sheboygan outdid Oneida and Lincoln counties, which had six kills each; Polk County, three kills; Barron and Florence counties, two each; Iron, one; and Vilas, zero.

That 218-wolf harvest might reveal little about wolf numbers or pack distribution, but it suggests negligence for the record proportions of hunting licenses the Natural Resources Board ordered with its 7-0 vote Feb. 15. The DNR offered up the Board’s 2,380 permits and sold 1,548, or 13 times the nontribal kill quota of 119 wolves. That’s a far higher proportion than first three wolf seasons, when the DNR sold 893 permits in 2012, or 7.7 times the nontribal quota; 1,879 permits in 2013, or 7.3 times the quota; and 1,139 permits in 2014, or 7.6 times the quota.

That also means the DNR issued 1.3 permits for every wolf in the agency’s estimated statewide population. For perspective, recent preseason calculations of Wisconsin’s deer herd put the statewide estimate at 2 million. How many deer would we shoot during the nine-day gun season if the DNR could dispatch 2.6 million hunters on opening weekend, many of them using trailing hounds? That's hard to predict, but in November 2020, 569,200 hunters killed 190,646 deer, or one for every third hunter. If that projection held, we'd kill 866,666 deer.

Meanwhile, many wolf-season critics noted that more wolves died than were registered, given wounding loss and illegal kills. Yes, those losses happen with hunting. And yes, recent studies suggest those regretful kills could be 10% of the legally registered wolf harvest, which would boost wolf deaths to 240.

But given that trailing hounds accounted for 86% of February’s registered wolf-kill, it’s unlikely that wounding loss equaled rates in existing research. Why? You can’t claim hounds are too efficient for trailing healthy wolves, but then pretend they quit the chase when hunters make bad shots. In reality, trailing and finding then becomes easier.

In fact, the DNR’s postseason report showed four wolves were killed illegally, zero were shot and not found, zero were killed by unknown means, and zero were killed while trapped incidentally.

And for all the claims and assumptions of widespread lawlessness during the three-day wolf season, the DNR reported few citable violations. The DNR’s law-enforcement division conducted 101 investigations, gave 31 verbal warnings, and issued 14 citations: 13 for hunting violations and one for trapping. It also issued no citations over conflicts or harassment, and found no evidence of anti-hunters making false registrations in hopes of ending the season quickly.

Still, February’s season was not a low-key event. The DNR received 84 wolf-hunting complaints, which is 2.3 times more than the 36 such complaints filed during the previous three wolf seasons combined, which totaled 181 days. Further, those 101 investigations are 26% more than the 80 made during the first three wolf seasons; and 14 citations in three days compares to 37 total during the previous three seasons: 10 for hunting and 27 for trapping in 181 days.

In addition, hunters helped prolong the season by waiting an average of 11 hours to register their kills during the 24-hour registration window. Of the 153 wolves registered online, 58 (38%) were filed within six hours, and 43 (28%) were filed 18 to 24 hours later.

Such numbers suggest a spiteful attitude generally unseen in other hunting. It will be interesting to see what the DNR’s postseason survey finds when asking February’s wolf hunters and trappers their motivations. In the 2013 and 2014 postseason surveys, 56% said they desired more time outdoors, a new hunting/trapping challenge, or a unique fur or taxidermy mount. In contrast, 37% said they wanted to reduce wolf numbers to lessen predation on deer, dogs or livestock.

Whether folks worship wolves or wish them ill, we likely need regulations that more precisely focus hunting and trapping pressure where wolves are killing and wounding pets, calves, cattle, sheep and horses; and costing thousands of dollars in compensation. Even after deducting $983,000 in compensation for hunting dogs killed or injured by wolves since 1985, Wisconsin has paid over $1.9 million in wolf-depredation claims.

Maybe that’s one thing a majority can agree on.

Whether people worship wolves or wish them ill, they often distort hunting data to match their arguments.

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