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Density causes annual clashes with wolves

Five livestock in Douglas County have been lost to wolf depredation this year as of Aug. 7. AP /J. & K. Hollingsworth
Wolves killed three beef calves and injured three hunting dogs in Douglas County in July, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services.
Another two calves have been lost to wolf depredation in Douglas County so far this month.

“They did seem to come in a flurry there for a couple weeks,” said Scott Wolter, large carnivore specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. However, the numbers are on par with previous years, he said.

Through Aug. 7, there were five livestock depredations in Douglas County. In 2017 and 2016, there were eight. In 2015, there were six.

Density is causing the annual depredations.

“In the northwest corner, we’ve got a fair number of livestock producers and the highest wolf numbers in the state,” Wolter said.

Of the estimated 944 wolves in Wisconsin, more than 340 of them — one-third — live in Wolf Management Unit 1, which includes all of Douglas, Bayfield and Ashland counties as well as sections of Sawyer, Iron, Price and Rusk.

More than 25 wolf packs have at least part of their range in Douglas County, according to a DNR map of wolf packs detected in Wisconsin in the winter of 2016-17.

Livestock depredations are most likely to occur this time of year, when cows have calves on the landscape and wolves have pups to feed, according to Jane Wiedenhoeft, wildlife biologist with the DNR.

“There’s so many small beef herds around that it’s pickings for them,” said Jerry Kroll, who winters 135 head of red angus in the town of Amnicon.

Hunters are also training their dogs this time of year, which can lead to conflicts between dogs and wolves.

Wolf depredation almost caused Douglas County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert to give up farming, something that’s been part of his family for 100 years.

“There are people who never had a problem,” said Liebaert, who raises direct-market, grass-finished beef in the town of Amnicon. “I was one of them until 2016. Then we got hit.”

They lost three calves to wolves. The rest of the herd of 40 suffered, too.

Liebaert said he “lost 60 pounds” on each animal he slaughtered because wolves were chasing them. Several cows, he said, didn’t get bred due to stress.

He recalled sleeping with the windows open and waking up to the screams of cows in the middle of the night.

“If the dog next door comes over and starts harassing my cattle, I can shoot that dog, but a wolf, I can’t,” Liebaert said. “That’s crazy.”

Kroll, too, has lost calves to wolves.

“We need to be able to protect our livelihood — it’s that simple,” he said.

Preying on livestock is a learned behavior for wolves, but options to stop depredations are limited, said Brad Koele, wildlife damage specialist with the DNR.

“The wolf population is very healthy and continuing to expand,” Wolter said. “In terms of the number of wolves, they’ve far surpassed recovery goals, passed population goals in the state wildlife management plan.”

But gray wolves are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. They were delisted in late 2011 in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan and placed back under federal protection in 2014.

Wolter said there are two efforts underway at the federal level to delist wolves. One is a House budget bill that includes language to delist wolves in the Department of Interior budget. The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Services has initiated a review of the wolf status and may republish its wolf delisting decision later this year.

“He’s a success story, he’s back, he’s stable,” Liebaert said. “Why are we spending all this money on a species that doesn’t need protection?”

Options

Farmers can use fladry — an electric fence with nylon ribbons hanging from it — or guard dogs to scare off wolves. Remotely activated alarms that go off when a collared wolf is near, strobe lights, even a weather radio tuned to a talk station can help.

“Like scarecrow-ing a garden, it may lose impact over time,” Wolter said.

But it can give wolves pause, allowing time for calves to grow up and no longer be considered as prey.

Farms in chronic problem areas, like the south shore of Lake Superior, may need more permanent fencing solutions.

Trapping and relocating of wolves is not used unless wolves trap themselves within a fence — something Koele’s seen twice in recent years. Lethal measures are only used if a wolf demonstrates an immediate danger to human health and safety. Koele said he’s had to use lethal means three times since wolves were relisted, including a wolf in the town of Superior last year that was showing no fear of humans.

Hunters are encouraged to look up dog depredations online through the DNR. Virtual caution areas have been set up around each spot where dogs have been killed or injured by wolves, and hunters are urged to avoid those areas or use extra caution when hunting there.

“Keep as close as you can in contact with the dogs,” Koele said. And, put bells on them.

Farmers who suspect a wolf or bear has killed or is harassing their livestock and owners whose dogs have encountered wolves can call the USDA at 800-228-1368. Find more information at dnr.wi.gov under “gray wolf.”

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