Four decades ago, wolves were added to the Endangered Species Act, and the once expulsed gray wolf trickled back into the Wisconsin wilderness. Protected by federal law, wolves were allowed to grow and spread out among the wooded north, resulting in a resurgence of a species once considered extirpated from the state.
When the wolves returned, they revived the same old anxieties that inspired the state-sponsored hunts and zealous poachers to originally drive the wolf out. Some locals in the wolf range, anxious about unchecked wolf populations preying on livestock and affecting deer herds, continue to grow less tolerant toward returning wolves. It is a trend that even a state-sponsored wolf hunt could not break, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at UW-Madison.
Led by Jamie Hogberg, a researcher at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the survey looked at public opinion about wolves from before and after the 2012 inaugural wolf hunt. According to a statement made by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the hunt was supposed to improve social intolerance toward the maligned wolf. Yet, according to Hogberg’s study, the harvest may have had the opposite effect, at least among hunters in the wolf range.
“One of the stated goals of the harvest was to maintain social tolerance,” said Hogberg. “But in just that first year of the hunt, we didn’t see that among a key stakeholder group.”
The survey focused primarily on male hunters in the wolf range, outspoken community members who were surveyed in previous studies to see if their attitudes changed. Researchers also surveyed people who reported conflict with wolves and people who lived outside of wolf range, though the majority of respondents were self-identifying hunters living within wolf range.
Hunters fear that wolves, who primarily hunt a deer herd’s weakest members, could be impacting deer herds and reducing hunting opportunities. However, the wolves’ stake in Wisconsin’s deer herd is dwarfed by the 340,000 taken annually by hunters, according to the Wisconsin DNR.
Wolves have been delisted and relisted seven times since 2001, and are once again protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Participants were asked a series of questions to gauge their tolerance, ranging from their opinion about using a wolf hunt for population management to how they feel wolves affect deer hunting. Responses showed a net decline toward accepting wolves among male hunters since 2009’s survey.
More people said that killing wolves was the only way to prevent attacks on farm animals and pets, an issue spurring much of the debate around Wisconsin wolves. The Wisconsin DNR receives 50 to 60 reports annually of wolf depredation, or attacks on livestock. Meanwhile, fewer people believed in leaving population management to nature, with most respondents supporting some kind of wolf harvest in Wisconsin.
While it might be too early to tell, since the latest surveys were conducted only immediately after the first harvest, according to Hogberg, a potential reason for declining tolerance after the first wolf hunt is that a legalized hunting and trapping season could have actually reinforced a negative relationship between people and wolves, depending on a hunter’s motivation for participating.
The limits of the study come from its longitudinal goals, since this was a group originally surveyed in 2001 when UW-Madison researchers first began studying attitudes toward wolves. Those researchers, working with UW-Madison Carnivore Coexistence Lab, conducted similar surveys in 2004 and 2009.
The study also looked at the assumption that a wolf hunt could ultimately foster tolerance among hunters if they become more motivated to maintain a harvestable wolf population.
While Wisconsin’s wolf harvest focused largely on the perceived threat of a growing wolf population, the study indicated that there should be some effort to explain the benefits of conservation. Researchers cited positive communication programs in Ohio that ultimately led to greater acceptance for its native black bears.
According to Bret Shaw, a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication and a co-author of the study, wolves hold a unique place in society that could have influenced wolves’ reputation.
“The wolf is an iconic species to many people,” Shaw said. “If you think of mammals in North America, what animal runs the gamut from the sacred… all the way to being Aesop’s fabled villain. There’s really no other animal in North America that generates so divergent opinions.”
Other co-authors of the study include Adrian Treves, associate professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and Lisa Naughton, a professor in the Department of Geography.