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Pat Durkin column: Fond of wolves? You must live in urban area


Patrick Durkin is a free-lance writer who covers outdoor recreation for the Press-Gazette. Write to him at the Press-Gazette, P.O. Box 23430, Green Bay, WI 54305-3430; or e-mail him at: patrickdurkin@charter.net


As Wisconsin’s timber wolf population grows and lives more willingly among humans than expected, the once-endangered species is making more meals out of pets and livestock across the North Woods.

In turn, wolves that learn it’s relatively easy to kill the fatted calf and lamb — or the lean hunting dog, for that matter — are targeted because the Department of Natural Resources has permission from the federal government to remove trouble-makers.

For those keeping score, the DNR killed 17 of the state’s approximately 350 wolves in 2003 after documenting they had killed 20 head of cattle, including 18 calves; 24 sheep, including 17 lambs; and six hunting dogs. Wolves also injured four other dogs and one privately owned whitetail on a deer farm.

In 2002, the wolves’ domestic menu included 37 cattle, seven sheep, three horses, 10 dogs and five whitetails on a deer farm. They injured four other dogs. The incidents occurred on 13 farms in 2003 and nine farms in 2002, all in Ashland, Barron, Bayfield, Burnett, Chippewa, Forest, Price, Rusk and Taylor counties.

Those of us living south of the North Woods seldom read about these losses. We’re more likely to hear about poodles or kitty-cats falling to a coyote in suburban southeastern Wisconsin. Conspiracy theorists say that’s because the wolf is a media darling, with apologists never out of hailing range.

I’m not sure that explains it.

A contributing factor is that there are more media near suburbs than near forests.

Plus, losing four-legged property to wild predators has been a rarity in southern Wisconsin for more than a century, but we’ve never been without coyotes, black bears and bobcats farther north.

I’m assuming, though, if wolves could somehow live in the suburbs of Madison or Milwaukee, people soon would stop cooing over them. After all, it’s much easier to accept wolves as a wondrous part of the ecosystem when someone else’s beloved animals are being devoured, and not your Fifi, Bessie or Lambchop.

Don’t take my word for it, though.

After reviewing 38 surveys that studied public attitudes toward wolves between 1972 and 2000, University of Wisconsin researchers reported last year that the less direct contact people had with wolves, and the more urbanized and formally educated the people were, the more they liked them. The more direct experience people have with wolves, the less they like them.

Those surveys were conducted in Alaska, Canada, Asia, Scandinavia, western Europe and the continental United States.

Some folks also assume public attitudes toward wolves grow increasingly positive over time, but the UW research found those attitudes were stable the past 30 years. The researchers believe the public’s generally positive attitude toward wolves grew between the 1930s and 1970s, when wolves were largely absent from places they’ve since repopulated.

Furthermore, they found local attitudes toward wolves are likely to turn negative when outsiders try influencing wolf-management plans. That’s no small factor, because national and international groups mobilize their members every time a wolf-management plan arises, big or small. Given the strident tone of many wolf-support groups, who dub almost any contrary opinion “anti-wolf,” it might be difficult to determine what truly upsets locals: the wolves or the urban strangers who treat the locals like rubes.

In effect, some of these groups have converted the wolf from a symbol of wilderness into a living icon of big government and arrogant interference. With friends like that, the wolf’s popularity seems doomed to decline.

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