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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Wisconsin’s 2020 wolf hunt: What went wrong?

Shots rang out across Wisconsin on Monday, Feb. 22, as the state’s first wolf hunt in seven years took place. Packs of dogs raced across the fresh snow as hunters quickly overshot the harvest quota of 119. The hunt was closed just two days after it had begun as the DNR continued to receive reports of successful kills. 

The proposed late winter hunt had taken place despite an outdated state wolf management plan and inadequate regulation of the harvest. The Natural Resources Board had initially voted down the late winter hunt due to the lack of tribal consultation. However, the hunt proceeded due to a court order brought about by an out-of-state hunting group Hunter Nation’s lawsuit, without the necessary communication to tribal leaders. 

“I don’t want to call it miscommunication because no communication [happened],” said Abi Fergus, a wildlife specialist for the Bad River Band. “At this point it seems like willful ignorance.”

Treaty rights in the Great Lakes region stipulate that tribes must be consulted before hunts are established, but the DNR did not make adequate attempts to reach Wisconsin tribes. Technicians did call Peter David, a wildlife biologist at the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, the Friday before the NRB special meeting where the quotas were established. As a member of GLIFWC, David works with tribes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota to affirm their hunting and gathering rights in ceded territories.

“There was nothing that I would say qualified as tribal communication,” David said of the interaction.

Fergus noted this trend of poor communication between the tribes and the state has lasted for years.

“In the 2010s the state both ignored the tribes assertions about what portion of the wolf quota they would claim and the tribes asserting the buffer zones … There has been no conversation with the tribes for a lot of this.”

When determining quotas for the hunt, Natural Resources Board members cited their concerns about the goal of the harvest and its conflicts with the state management plan, a document which outlines the state’s goals for population control and the actions the DNR should take to meet them. Keith Warnke, the Division Administrator of the DNR’s Division of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, stated that the hunt’s goal was to stabilize the population, as dictated in the plan, but NRB Vice-Chair Greg Kazmierski raised concerns about this objective. 

“I’m not sure that [this] follows the current management plan in place,” Kazmierski stated.

The board proceeded to approve a motion with an initial quota of 200 wolves with no allocation to tribal harvests and a permit distribution ratio of twenty permits to each wolf harvested. The permit allocation was double what the DNR had recommended to the board. 

After tribal leaders made a request to the DNR to receive their due allotment, up to 50% of the state harvest, and the DNR decreased the harvest quota from 200 to 119.

Charlie Rasmussen, a representative from GLIFWC, said that the tribes decided not to have a hunt and leave their portion of the quota as live wolves. Nonetheless, non-native hunters overshot their own quota, raking in 216 kills, approximately 20% of the state’s wolf population, over the course of three days.

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The DNR was not able to honor the tribes’ allotment of 81 live wolves.

“There’s a lot of reasons why a hunt is really antithetical from the tribe’s point of view for cultural reasons and for spiritual reasons,” said Rasmussen. “For the idea of a harvest to be out of need. Tribes are not supporters of trophy hunting.”

86% of the harvested wolves were taken by use of hounds. The use of dogs had not been permitted in previous seasons due to its efficiency and low populations in previous seasons. Wisconsin is the only state in which their use in wolf hunting is permitted.

Some cite the efficiency of the hunt as a result of pristine tracking conditions with the fresh snow the morning the hunt began. 

“The use of dogs is a very efficient method of harvest,” Randy Johnson, Carnivore specialist for the DNR said. “In northern Wisconsin, we had fresh snow both Monday morning and Tuesday morning, which is ideal conditions for tracking wolves.”

With the vast majority of wolf harvests in the state taking place with the use of dogs, many are morally opposed to this method. The DNR was sued by the Wisconsin Humane Society in 2012 citing that they would like "reasonable rules are established to protect dogs from injury or death." Hunters can be compensated for dogs killed during hunts and are limited to six dogs in pursuit. 

However, concerns arose that harvested wolves were not being reported in a timely manner, resulting in all harvest zones exceeding their quota. Hunters have 24 hours to register a kill online, but some suggest that wolves were reported as late as possible to keep the hunt open. 


On the Facebook page “Wisconsin Wolf Hunting,” users posted memes about registering tags in the middle of the night, along with pictures of their kills and YouTube videos for “wild game cooking.”

Though hunters are not entirely to blame for the hunt’s undesirable outcome. The Wisconsin DNR neglected to update key information related to the harvest in its management plan.

The current Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan was written in 1999 and was last updated in 2007. Many supporters of the recent wolf hunt cite a supposed wolf population goal of 300. Vice-Chair Kazmierski cited this “population goal” of 300 in the initial meeting discussing a wolf hunt, stating, “We know the population... It’s three times above the management plan goal.”

The only time a population of 300 wolves in Wisconsin is mentioned in the plan is discussed in the context of 300-500 wolves occupying premium habitat in the state. 350 wolves is the population minimum in the 2007 update where a variety of management strategies such as depredation control or public harvest are to be considered a possibility. 

Many Wisconsin residents did not want the hunt to take place to begin with. During the January 22nd meeting of the Natural Resources Board members heard nearly four hours of public testimony and received over 1400 written testimonies that were overwhelmingly opposed to the hunt. 

One such testimony came from Melissa Smith who spoke on behalf of a citizen advocacy group the Great Lakes Wildlife Alliance. “Those who propose this rushed hunt are doing so full well knowing that they need to rush and not follow best available science or the public trust because there’s an extremely high probability that wolves will have protections restored to the Endangered Species Act,” she said. 

Donald Waller, a recently retired ecologist and conservation biologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post with environmental attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin. Waller had choice words for how the Wisconsin DNR handled the hunt, and presented two questions for organizers of future hunts:

“Why do we allow unethical wolf hunts to take place? And just as importantly, why are we allowing the narrow interests of hunters to override sound, science-based conservation policy?”

After the initial delisting of the gray wolf, the DNR had planned a hunt for November 2021 to give the department ample time to gather accurate data, public views and tribal consultation. This rushed hunt did not meet the tribe’s rights to consultation on harvests on ceded territories or include an updated management plan. The plan in use was written in 1999 and updated in 2007.

Looking to the future, and to the possible 2021 hunt, tribal representatives and wildlife experts alike hope that state lawmakers, court and DNR approach the controversial hunt with greater tact and preparation. The DNR has already set a timeline for an updated wolf management plan to be written; a draft should be ready for public input in February 2022.

“They clearly have to do a better job than they did this time,” David concluded.

In the end, the state of Wisconsin failed to honor its own management standards outlined in a plan written over twenty years ago:

“The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources adheres to the principles of adaptive management and the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan will be periodically reviewed, and adapted to meet changing biological and social conditions.”

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