State regulators approved a plan Wednesday to govern the possible hunting of wolves in Wisconsin, offering guidance to wildlife officials but not setting a hard cap on the wolf population that some legislators, hunters and farmers wanted.
The plan was approved by the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board after over six hours of public comment and debate, with members of the conservation community, the state’s tribal nations and sporting groups weighing in on the pros and cons of the idea.
Fierce debate over wolf management has turned the issue into one of the most high-profile environmental matters facing Wisconsin. The rebound of wolves in the state has been cheered as a conservation success story.
But farmers and ranchers complain about the harm wolf packs have caused to their property and livestock, with the state paying out over $100,000 in 2022 to settle damages caused by wolves. Hunters, meanwhile, want to ensure a robust chance to hunt the animal.
A 2011 state law mandates the state hold a wolf hunt, which in 2021 created major demand, with hunters and trappers killing 53% more animals than allotted. This requirement is suspended, however, after a federal judge in California ruled last year that gray wolves should be listed as an endangered species, a move that bans hunting the animal.
The Department of Natural Resources has sought to implement a plan to address wolf management if the species were to be delisted, re-opening the door for a hunt to take place.
That document did not include a hard-and-fast cap on Wisconsin's wolf population, something Republican legislators and other groups have pushed for, believing it could better protect animals and people and could expand hunting access.
Instead, the plan calls for maintaining the current wolf population, which the DNR estimated last winter to be around 1,000 animals, but includes guidelines for officials on whether to let the packs to grow or shrink depending on their size and gives flexibility for shaping what any future wolf hunt might look like.
Randy Johnson, large carnivore specialist for the DNR, said this move allows the state to also better focus on other priorities, such as reducing human-wolf conflicts, and can account for wolf populations varying across different regions of the state.
“One thing that is not changing is the state’s commitment to a healthy and sustainable wolf population,” Johnson said. “However, we’re updating the way we approach this. We’re moving away from using a specific number of wolves as the primary management objective, we’re moving away from that population-goal approach.”
But this has not been adequate for GOP officials, with the state Senate approving legislation earlier this month to require the Natural Resources Board to set a specific cap on the wolf population. The state is operating under a 1999 wolf management plan that has a limit of 350 animals outside of the state’s tribal lands.
Proponents of the idea argue a hard cap would better help the DNR see whether its plan is working and that other Midwest and Western states, such as Idaho and Wyoming, use this strategy.
Chris Vaughan, Wisconsin state director for Hunter Nation, which opposes the plan, said the DNR “should base its decision on sound science, not emotion.”
“While this has become a hot button social issue … we recommend the department listen to the real-life experience of those in wolf country,” Vaughan said. “Resident stakeholders and their elected officials overwhelmingly support a defined population goal.”
Many of the state's tribes have opposed a wolf hunt, arguing that past efforts at establishing a hunt have not accounted for their treaty rights, which they believe gives them access to half of the wolf population.
The tribes ban hunting on their land and instead want to protect the animal, believing wolves to be sacred. They sued in 2021 to stop the wolf hunt, before the listing of the animal as endangered ultimately rendered the matter moot for now.
“For our animal brothers and sisters that do not have a voice, Indian Country will always be the voice for them,” Joe Miller, council member for the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, said.
Public comment on the wolf plan stretched for months and drew over 3,500 responses from Wisconsin and out-of-state residents.
The plan would place limits on wolf hunting, curbing the number of hunting licenses that can be issued and requiring more rigorous data reporting.
For the time being, a wolf hunt is purely theoretical because the animal remains listed as endangered. But Johnson said a ruling is expected in February from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether that will continue to be the case.
"We can have a wolf season while trying to have population growth," Johnson said.
Natural Resource Board members expressed concerns about repeating the wolf hunt of 2021.
"If delisting happens, we need to be ready," board member Douglas Cox said. "How many times have we heard 2021 mentioned today? We can’t afford to have 2021 happen again."
But some conservationists urged the board to vote down the plan and argued it gave too many concessions to hunters.
"It is scientifically biased and favors pre-determined management practices," said Francisco Santiago-Avila, conservation manager for Project Coyote.
The vote marks a significant action by the new-look DNR board, whose membership has been in flux after state legislators rejected four of Gov. Tony Evers’ appointments to the panel, with the wolf issue a key point of friction.
Evers quickly nominated four new members to the board, all of whom are able to vote and serve on the panel until the state Senate takes up their confirmation.