Wolf Hunting and Trapping in Wisconsin: Current Status

Federal Protections and Prohibitions

As of the federal court ruling on February 10, 2022, gray wolves have been relisted as an endangered species throughout the lower 48 states, except the northern Rocky Mountains region. This status grants them comprehensive federal protection, which includes a prohibition on their harvest and lethal control methods typically used in depredation situations. These stringent protections reflect the species' ecological importance and the need for careful management to ensure their survival and well-being.

Wisconsin's Commitment to Wolf Conservation

Despite the challenges associated with managing a top predator, Wisconsin's wolf population remains robust and well-distributed across its suitable habitats. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is committed to continuing its extensive monitoring programs, which are vital for making informed decisions about wolf management and conservation. In addition, the state is focused on updating its wolf management plan to adapt to changing circumstances and ensure that it reflects the latest scientific knowledge and public attitudes.

Addressing Wolf Conflicts

Recognizing that conflicts between wolves and humans can occur, especially concerning livestock, pets, and hunting dogs, the DNR maintains a strong partnership with USDA-Wildlife Services. This collaboration aims to address and mitigate wolf conflicts efficiently and humanely. Individuals who experience or witness wolf depredation are urged to contact the USDA-Wildlife Services promptly to report the incident and initiate an investigation. This response not only helps in resolving the specific issue but also contributes to the broader understanding of wolf behavior and interactions with humans and domestic animals.

Legal Considerations in Wolf Conflicts

While gray wolves hold an endangered status, the law does provide for the protection of human life. In the rare event that a wolf poses an immediate threat to human safety, it may be legally permissible to shoot the animal. However, this action is heavily regulated and should be considered a last resort. Individuals must understand the legal and ethical implications of such actions and are strongly encouraged to seek alternatives or professional assistance when dealing with wolf encounters.

Conservation Status and Management

A Snapshot of Current Wolf Management in Wisconsin

As of a federal court ruling on February 10, 2022, gray wolves have returned to the endangered species list in the lower 48 states, except the northern Rocky Mountains region. This reclassification reinstates federal protections, thereby prohibiting the harvest and lethal depredation control of these animals. Despite these restrictions, Wisconsin's wolf population remains robust and secure, reflecting the state's commitment to maintaining healthy wildlife numbers.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) continues its intensive efforts to monitor the wolf population, ensuring the species' well-being through scientific research and public cooperation. The department is also in the process of revising the wolf management plan, aiming to balance ecological needs with human interests and safety.

Conflict Resolution and Public Safety Measures

In response to wolf-human conflicts, the DNR collaborates closely with the USDA-Wildlife Services to address and manage these situations. Residents, especially those in rural areas, are urged to report any wolf-related incidents promptly. The contact information varies depending on the location within Wisconsin, ensuring a quick and localized response to any wolf depredation or dangerous behavior.

It's important to note that, while wolves are federally protected, Wisconsin law maintains that in instances of immediate threat to human safety, defensive measures including lethal force may be permissible. This is a tightly regulated exception, emphasizing the priority of human safety while respecting the protected status of the wolves.

Volunteer Involvement and Public Awareness

The DNR encourages public involvement through the Volunteer Tracking Program to further engage the community and support wolf conservation efforts. This initiative allows citizens to contribute to wolf monitoring and research, offering training and resources to those interested. The program underscores the importance of public participation in wildlife conservation and the value of citizen science.

Annual Wolf Monitoring Reports

The DNR publishes detailed annual reports on wolf monitoring activities, providing insights into population trends, habitat usage, and conservation efforts. These reports are a testament to the state's commitment to transparency and science-based management. The latest report for 2022-2023 is available online, along with previous years' reports for comprehensive historical data.

Wolf Biology in Wisconsin

Taxonomy and Physical Characteristics

Species and Size

Gray wolves, scientifically known as Canis lupus, are the largest members of the canid family in the wild. They are distinct from coyotes (Canis latrans), which are sometimes incorrectly referred to as brush wolves. In Wisconsin, adult gray wolves typically weigh between 50 and 100 pounds, with males being larger than females, averaging around 75 pounds compared to females at 60 pounds.

Appearance

Wolves display a variety of color patterns, mostly a mix of buff-colored tans intermingled with gray and black. In the winter months, their fur tends to darken around the neck, shoulders, and rump. Wolves are characterized by their rounded, relatively short ears, large blocky muzzles, and tails that extend straight out or point downward.

Diet and Feeding Habits

Wolves in Wisconsin are primarily carnivorous. Studies indicate that their diet consists predominantly of white-tailed deer (55%), supplemented by beavers (16%), snowshoe hares (10%), and other small game. Deer are the mainstay of their diet year-round, but in spring and fall, beavers become a more significant part due to their increased vulnerability on land. Wolves' diets diversify in summer, including small mammals and even berries, reflecting the availability of different food sources.

Breeding and Development

Wolves typically reach sexual maturity at two years of age but usually breed later. Breeding is generally restricted to the dominant pair in a pack, leading to one litter per year averaging five to six pups. In Wisconsin, the breeding season is late winter, with pups born two months later in dens or other sheltered areas. The pups are initially blind and deaf, rapidly growing in the first months. By six weeks, they are weaned and fed regurgitated meat by adults. At six to eight weeks, they leave the den for rendezvous sites, playing a central role in the pack's summer activities.

Social Structure and Territory

Wolves are highly social animals, living in packs typically comprising six to ten members during the summer. The pack includes the breeding pair, yearlings, and current year's pups. The average pack size by winter is about four wolves. The pack's territory in Wisconsin averages around 60 square miles, with minimal overlap between neighboring packs. Wolves mark their territory with urine and feces and use howling for communication and coordination within the vast territories.

Understanding Wisconsin's Wolf Population

Wolf Population Trends and Monitoring

From 2000 to 2023, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been meticulously monitoring the state's wolf population. Notably, during the 2021-2022 overwinter, there was an estimation of 812 to 1,193 pack-associated wolves residing within the pack-occupied range. This population is organized into approximately 243 to 352 packs, with the most likely number being 288 packs. Monitoring typically occurs in winter, leveraging snow cover for efficient tracking and representing the lowest population point annually. Following the spring breeding period, numbers increase, marking a cyclical pattern in population dynamics. Detailed findings are regularly published, including the comprehensive 2021-2022 Wolf Monitoring Report.

Historical Context and Population Recovery

Pre-European Settlement and Decline

Originally, Wisconsin's landscape was home to 3,000-5,000 wolves. However, unregulated hunting and habitat changes dramatically reduced their numbers. By the 1950s, targeted bounties and environmental changes led to their near-extinction, with only a few wolves remaining in remote northern areas.

Protection and Legal Status

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 marked a turning point, offering legal protection to wolves and recognizing them as an endangered species. These protections facilitated gradual population recovery, particularly noticeable when wolves from Minnesota began recolonizing northwest Wisconsin in the late 1970s.

Recovery and Current StatusWisconsin Endangered Gray Wolf Information

By the mid-1990s, the wolf population saw a significant resurgence, eventually surpassing federal recovery goals by 2000. This achievement reflects the collaborative efforts of various agencies and the support of local communities, underlined by a generally positive public attitude toward wolves in Wisconsin.

Modern Wolf Management Strategies

Federal and State Roles

Wolf management is a dynamic field influenced by both federal and state decisions. The federal status of wolves has fluctuated, with the most recent change reinstating them as a federally endangered species in February 2022. Wisconsin's management strategies align with these shifts, emphasizing adaptive measures and ongoing conservation efforts.

State-Driven Management Plan

Wisconsin's DNR, along with various partners, developed a comprehensive Wolf Management Plan, first introduced in 1999 and updated in 2007. This plan aims to maintain a stable and healthy wolf population, reflecting a commitment to ecological balance and community well-being.

Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan

Recent Approval and Availability

The Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan 2023, a crucial document guiding the state's approach to wolf conservation and management, was approved by the Natural Resources Board (NRB) on October 25, 2023. A recording of this significant meeting is accessible via the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) YouTube channel, offering transparency and insight into the decision-making process. The DNR is in the process of formatting the approved plan for final publication, and it will be available for public access upon completion.

Development and Public Participation

The update of the wolf management plan from 2021 to 2023 was a deliberate and inclusive effort by the Wisconsin DNR. Recognizing the wide range of interests and concerns regarding wolf management, the DNR committed to a transparent and thoughtful process over 2.5 years. The department acknowledges and expresses gratitude to everyone who participated in the development of the plan, offering feedback and following the extensive process.

Public Input and Committee Involvement

Public Input Questionnaire

To gather comprehensive public input, the DNR developed an online questionnaire available from April 15 to May 15, 2021. The aim was to collect diverse opinions on wolf management, the results of which were summarized and analyzed in a publicly available memo. This feedback played a crucial role in shaping the final plan, ensuring that it reflects a wide array of perspectives and information.

Wolf Management Plan Committee (WMPC)

The WMPC was established following an application and invitation process in Spring 2021. Comprised of individuals from various backgrounds including hunting, trapping, wolf advocacy, education, agriculture, ranching, government agencies, tribes, and the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, the committee provided valuable insights and recommendations to the DNR. The committee's final report, along with its charter, roster, and introduction packet, offers detailed insights into the collaborative process and diverse representation involved in updating the wolf management plan.

Managing Wolf Conflicts in Wisconsin

Addressing Human-Wolf Interactions

In Wisconsin, wolves, an integral part of the ecosystem, occasionally come into conflict with human interests, particularly in areas of livestock and pet management. Recognizing the importance of coexistence and conflict mitigation, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) works in partnership with the USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services. Together, they investigate reports of wolf depredation and implement adaptive measures to prevent and minimize these conflicts. One key aspect of this collaborative effort is the Wildlife Damage Program, which provides compensatory reimbursements to individuals who have experienced verified losses due to wolf activities.

Steps for Reporting Suspected Wolf Depredation

Immediate Contact

If you suspect wolf depredation, the first and most crucial step is to immediately contact USDA-Wildlife Services. Their lines are monitored continuously, ensuring that every report is attended to promptly. If your call isn't answered immediately, it's important to leave a detailed message to initiate the investigation process.

Detailed Reporting

When reporting a suspected wolf depredation incident, providing as much detail as possible is essential. Information about the location, nature of the damage, and any observed wolf behavior can be crucial for the investigation.

Evidence Preservation

To aid in the investigation, do not move or unnecessarily handle any carcasses. Instead, preserving the integrity of the kill site is vital. Cover any remains with a tarp or similar material to deter scavengers and protect any evidence such as tracks, scat, or blood. This step is critical for verifying the incident and determining the appropriate course of action.

Minimizing Disturbance

Reducing human activity near the depredation site is advisable. This minimizes disturbances that might alter the scene or evidence, thereby assisting the investigative process and leading to more accurate and timely resolutions.

Wolf Monitoring in Wisconsin

Strategies for Year-Round Observation

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is dedicated to maintaining a robust and informed understanding of the state's wolf population. Employing a variety of year-round monitoring methods allows for a detailed and dynamic understanding of wolf numbers, behaviors, and territories. Here's an overview of the main techniques used:

Winter Track Surveys

During the winter months, DNR staff, alongside trained volunteers and agency collaborators, conduct snow track surveys. These are particularly focused on regions with known or suspected wolf activity. Historically, these surveys have provided a minimum count of wolves, playing a crucial role in assessing population recovery and management efforts.

Occupancy Modeling

Introduced in 2020, the DNR has adopted scaled occupancy modeling, a statistical approach to estimating the presence and number of pack-associated wolves. This method integrates data from winter track surveys and GPS-collared wolves, offering a more comprehensive picture of wolf distribution and population density. The model, tailored for Wisconsin, aligns with methods used internationally for wildlife monitoring, ensuring accuracy and efficiency.

GPS Collaring

By fitting wolves with GPS collars, biologists gain valuable insights into the animals' movement patterns and territory sizes. This long-term data collection is pivotal for understanding wolf ecology, behavior, and survival rates.

Public Observations

Reports from the public about wolf sightings are invaluable, especially in areas not known for wolf activity. These observations help in identifying new territories and refining our understanding of wolf distribution across the state.

Monitoring Depredations and Mortalities

Keeping track of wolf interactions, especially those leading to livestock, pet, or hunting dog depredations, as well as recording wolf mortalities, is crucial. This data helps assess conflict zones, population health, and the effectiveness of management strategies.

Volunteer Tracking Program

Recognizing the challenges of monitoring elusive carnivores, the DNR relies on the Volunteer Tracking Program to extend its reach. Since 1979, with volunteers joining in 1995, the program has been a cornerstone of the wolf monitoring effort. Participants are trained to identify and record wolf tracks, contributing significantly to the understanding of wolf abundance and distribution.

Survey Blocks and Tracker Forms

The program is structured around designated survey blocks, ensuring coverage across various terrains and wolf-occupied areas. Participants use standardized forms to report their findings, ensuring consistency and reliability in the data collected.

Becoming a Tracker

Interested individuals are encouraged to become trackers, contributing to this vital conservation effort. Training and resources are provided, ensuring that volunteers are well-equipped to participate effectively in the program.

Wolf Reports

Population


To obtain historical monitoring reports, contact:

Randy Johnson
Large Carnivore Specialist

Harvest Season Reports

Management Plans

PUBLICATIONS

Wolf Ecology and Track Training Courses in Wisconsin

Training for Citizen Scientists in Wolf Monitoring

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has long incorporated trained citizen scientists into its wildlife monitoring programs, especially for the winter carnivore snow tracking survey. Since 1995, this program has provided a vital opportunity for volunteers to contribute to wolf monitoring efforts. The traditional courses offered each winter by DNR staff are designed not only to recruit and train volunteer trackers but also serve as an educational outreach for anyone interested in learning more about wolves and tracking wildlife in the snow.

Course Options and Modifications

Due to health and safety considerations, the DNR has adapted its training courses to include both online and in-person options, ensuring accessibility and continued participation from across the state.

Online Modules Option

  • Content: Eight prerecorded modules covering wolf history, ecology, management, and tracking basics in Wisconsin, including commentary by DNR biologists.
  • Availability: Modules are available for a limited time annually and can be completed at participants' own pace.
  • Certification: Completion of all modules, a course test, and attending a live online "Refresher" course are required for certification.

In-Person Volunteer Training Option

  • Content: Comprehensive training covering wolf monitoring techniques, tracking basics, and carnivore track identification, complemented by access to prerecorded online training modules.
  • Setting: All-day events hosted at specific locations, offering hands-on learning and direct interaction with instructors.

Refresher Training Event Overview

For volunteers who have previously completed the comprehensive training or have tracked with the carnivore project, Refresher training events are available. These sessions provide updates on survey protocols, track identification, and walkthroughs of the smartphone apps used for data collection, all through interactive online sessions.

Partners and Course Developers

Several partner organizations, such as the Timber Wolf Alliance and Timber Wolf Information Network, offer parallel courses to extend educational opportunities. The course materials have been developed by DNR biologists and formatted for virtual and in-person learning, ensuring a comprehensive and engaging educational experience.

Course Content and Focus Areas

Each module within the course focuses on a specific aspect of wolf ecology or tracking, ranging from the history and management of wolves in Wisconsin to the specifics of conducting a winter carnivore survey. Using the tracking app, participants learn to conduct virtual surveys and submit data, enhancing the real-world impact of their training.

Frequently Asked Questions About Wolves in Wisconsin

1. Are wolves in Wisconsin protected by law?

Yes, wolves in Wisconsin are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act as of the latest federal ruling. It is illegal to harm, harass, or kill wolves, except in the defense of human life.

2. How many wolves are there in Wisconsin?

As of the most recent estimates from the 2023 Wolf Monitoring Report, the population ranges between 812 and 1,193 pack-associated wolves across the state.

3. What do wolves in Wisconsin eat?

Wolves in Wisconsin primarily feed on white-tailed deer, making up over 55% of their diet. They also consume beavers, snowshoe hares, and other small mammals. In summer, their diet diversifies to include berries and other available food sources.

4. Can I volunteer for wolf monitoring in Wisconsin?

Yes, the DNR runs a Volunteer Tracking Program where individuals can help track and monitor wolves, particularly through winter track surveys. Training and materials are provided to volunteers.

5. What should I do if I encounter a wolf?

If you encounter a wolf, keep a safe distance, do not run or turn your back, make yourself appear larger, and calmly back away. If the wolf acts aggressively, stand your ground, make noise, and try to scare it off.

6. How are wolf conflicts managed in Wisconsin?

The DNR collaborates with USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services to manage wolf conflicts, particularly regarding livestock and pets. They provide investigations into reported conflicts and offer compensatory reimbursements through the Wildlife Damage Program.

7. Are there any legal ways to protect my property from wolves?

Landowners can employ non-lethal deterrents such as guard animals, fencing, and alarm systems. In cases of immediate threat to human safety, lethal control may be permitted, but it is strictly regulated and typically requires prior authorization.

8. Where do wolves live in Wisconsin?

Wolves are primarily found in the northern and central forested regions of Wisconsin, where there is suitable habitat. However, their range has been expanding, and they can occasionally be spotted in more southern regions.

9. When is the wolf breeding season in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, wolves typically breed in late winter, around late January and February. Pups are born approximately two months later, generally in dens in secluded areas.

10. How can I learn more about wolves and their management in Wisconsin?

For detailed information on wolves and their management, visit the Wisconsin DNR website, check out the annual wolf monitoring reports, or contact local wildlife officials. Public resources like the Volunteer Tracking Program or educational workshops are also available for those interested in learning more or getting involved.

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