As emotions run high around wolf management in Wisconsin, members of the state’s wolf harvest advisory committee failed to reach a consensus over a recommended harvest level for this fall’s hunt during its last scheduled meeting on Tuesday.
The committee is made up of a variety of interests representing state wildlife managers, tribes, agriculture, hunting and environmental groups, among others. Department of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs said the committee’s input would serve as a starting point for the agency to come up with a proposed harvest target.
"It will be incorporated into the department's discussions and season recommendations at every level of review," said Ambs during Tuesday’s meeting.
Ambs didn’t expect the committee would submit specific recommendations to the agency as it develops a harvest quota for the fall hunt, which is set to begin Nov. 6. The agency sought input on a harvest quota, harvest rates across wolf management zones and the number of licenses that should be made available to meet that harvest target.
They must now sort through a wide range of viewpoints and disagreements over management goals, models used to predict harvest levels moving forward, and the impact of the February hunt on the state’s wolf population. State-licensed hunters blew past their 119-wolf quota and harvested 218 wolves in less than 72 hours at the end of February.
DNR staff called the hunt an anomaly compared to prior wolf seasons. Despite that, committee member Erik Olson, an associate professor of natural resources at Northland College, said it makes sense to hold a conservative harvest.
"We saw in the February hunt that there was an over harvest, and that suggests that there was a lack of control that either needs to be addressed or requires a lower quota," said Olson.
Olson also pointed to uncertainty over the state’s wolf population after the hunt.
According to the DNR’s modeling, there were 1,136 wolves among the state’s packs prior to the wolf hunt. The agency estimates the population could range from 944 to 1,377 wolves across their range. Data collected from wolf survey and monitoring efforts from November through Feb. 21 indicates the population was stabilizing prior to the abbreviated wolf season.
Part of the reason for the uncertainty surrounding the wolf population is that the DNR lacked sufficient data.
"The tracking data is largely collected before the season — the harvest season," said Jennifer Price Tack, DNR large carnivore research scientist. "With what is left, there's just not sufficient data to produce a post-hunt estimate."
The number of wolves in Wisconsin has grown from just 25 animals since 1980. As the number of wolves has expanded, farmers and hunters have reported increasing conflicts with the animals across their range. Some questioned why the DNR is not using a threshold of 350 wolves outlined in the state’s existing wolf management plan as a population goal. The agency considers that figure a management goal at which harvest or lethal control may be used.
Critics of the state’s current plan note that it was first written in 1999 and last updated in 2007. Randy Johnson, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, noted that plan is currently under review.
"We'll iron out what a new population goal, if any, should be, but until we get to that point status quo is the approach we're taking," Johnson said.
Committee member Steve Suchomel, a member of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, rejected that notion.
"If you have a plan, and then disregard it because it might change, then you don't have a plan," Suchomel said.
Last week, members of the committee that developed the state’s existing wolf management plan sent a letter to the current wolf harvest advisory committee, urging them to set a conservative quota and maintain the wolf population.
Committee member Jodi Habush Sinykin with Midwest Environmental Advocates believes a conservative quota is necessary because this is the first time the state will hold two hunts in one year after hunters sued to force the DNR to hold a hunt in February.
"There is certainly … a significant loss of confidence in the DNR’s ability to regulate the hunt (after) what has occurred in February," Habush Sinykin said. "We need to restore that public confidence and the reputation of Wisconsin nationally."
As part of that, she recommended a smaller ratio of licenses to wolves that may be taken during the fall hunt. The agency sold around 13 licenses for every wolf harvested during the February wolf season. Committee members who support and oppose the wolf hunt seemed to achieve some consensus on reducing the number of permits for hunters and trappers. Proposals varied from selling 10 licenses for every wolf taken to a one-to-one ratio similar to the state's elk hunt in northern Wisconsin.
Committee member Matt Lallemont, an avid hunter and an associate director with the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, agreed there were too many licenses sold during the shortened February season.
"We had a flood of people in the woods," Lallemont said. "With the increased population, middle of breeding season, highly effective method, double tags out there — it was a perfect storm."
He and other hunters say reducing the number of harvest tags sold would provide hunters and trappers with more time to harvest wolves. But, Peter David, a wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, fears extending the season by selling fewer licenses would shift the opportunity to hound hunters.
"You switch gears from a less effective technique into a very effective technique, and are actually, I think, more likely to overshoot the quota than if you keep most of the harvest within the hunting and trapping community," David said.
David also pointed out that tribes, which view the wolf as a brother, feel it’s not their place to decide the extent of suitable habitat for wolves as the state sets harvest levels for each wolf management zone.
The agency will now consult with Wisconsin Ojibwe tribes on the harvest prior to submitting its proposal for a quota to the Natural Resources Board on Aug. 12.