Hunters and trappers in Wisconsin killed 216 wolves in less than three days during the state’s first wolf season since 2014, 82% above the quota of 119 wolves set by the Department of Natural Resources.
That total harvest during the court-ordered wolf season means hunters and trappers killed nearly 20% of the state's estimated total wolf population of 1,100 in less than 72 hours.
In Northwestern Wisconsin’s Zone 1, the DNR set a harvest goal of 31 wolves, but hunters and trappers killed 50 wolves.
Hunting could have gone through Sunday, but ended by 3 p.m. Wednesday in all six wolf zones, with hunter success much higher than expected.
DNR officials said they used “the best available science while following existing state law,’’ when asked if they should have shut the season down earlier in the week. State law requires the DNR to issue a 24-hour notice before closing the season, and DNR biologists said they didn’t see registrations increasing rapidly until well into Tuesday; they then issued closure notices for Wednesday. Hunters have 24 hours after harvesting a wolf to register the kill, leading to the lag time.
"Is that something we wanted to happen? Absolutely not,'' said Eric Lobner, director of the DNMR's wildlife management office.
The DNR reported Thursday that 86% of the wolves killed were shot by hunters using dogs to chase wolves while 5% were killed by trappers and 9% by other means, such as hunting over bait at night.
DNR officials said it was the use of dogs, fresh snow for tracking and double the number of permits — and this double the number of hunters afield — that led to the rapid success and high harvest total. Dogs had generally not been allowed during the state's only other modern wolf seasons in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
“The use of dogs is a very efficient means of harvest,’’ said Randy Johnson, large carnivore specialist for the DNR.
The DNR had proposed issuing only 2,000 permits, but the state Natural resources Board doubled that to 4,000 with a wolf harvest quota of 200. Native American bands claimed their share of the harvest under treaty rights, leaving state-licensed hunters 2,380 permits and a state-hunter quota of 119 wolves.
It’s believed the bands did not harvest many, if any, wolves. Several Native American elders had asked the state not to hold the hunt because they consider wolves sacred.
The DNR plans to hold another wolf hunt later this year, likely starting in November.
DNR officials said it's still unclear if the state’s wolf population is higher than their estimate, possibly leading to more wolves encountered in the field, or whether hunters were just unexpectedly successful.
"I would say there’s low concern at the population level of any significant effects" on the long-term health of the state’s wolf population, Johnson said. “Wolf populations are resilient. They can withstand a high mortality or harvest.”
DNR law enforcement officials said they had a handful of citations issued to wolf hunters, but not more than usual.
Under a Feb. 11 state court order to hold the hunt this month, the state Department of Natural Resources received 27,151 applications for 2,380 available permits that were issued Monday. Successful applicants could begin hunting immediately Monday.
The DNR initially had planned to wait until November to hold a wolf hunt until the judge's order forced its hand. Wolves were federally protected from the mid-1970s to 2012, when states regained control over their management. A court order restored federal protections for late 2014 until the Trump administration moved in recent months to again lift federal protections.
Supporters of the immediate season, namely agriculture and hunting groups, said quick action was needed to cull the state's wolf population with wolves depredating livestock and lowering deer numbers in some areas.
Critics said the state acted too fast after the Jan. 4 expiration of federal Endangered Species Act protections, saying a winter season would upend wolf pack hierarchy and cause undue stress during the wolf mating season.
Wolf supporters jumped on the outcome of the Wisconsin hunt as an example of why states can't be trusted to keep wolves from falling back into endangered status. Groups have already filed a federal lawsuit seeking to reinstate federal protections.
"Though it is too late for these wolves whose lifeless carcasses may still be warm, the Biden administration must recognize that Wisconsin is not properly handling its management authority for wolves and jeopardizing their recovery," Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, said in a statement. “The United States must seek to … restore protections for wolves across their range in the northern Great Lakes and much of their other range in the United States avoid a repeat of the savage action that just occurred in northern Wisconsin.”
Final Wisconsin wolf harvest by zone
Zone 1 — goal 31, harvest 50
Zone 2 — goal 18, harvest 45
Zone 3 — goal 20, harvest 43
Zone 4 — goal 6, harvest 7
Zone 5 — goal 27, harvest 31
Zone 6 — goal 17, harvest 40
Total — goal 119, harvest 216