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Wolf recovery deemed success by some, scourge by others

Published Thursday, September 9, 2004 12:43:56 PM Central Time

By Lee Fahrney

Times Outdoors Writer

EAGLE RIVER -- Depending on who you talk to, the recovery of the timber wolf in Wisconsin has been either an unqualified success or an economic disaster in the making. Both sides of the issue were offered up recently at the Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association annual conference in Eagle River.

Adrian Wydeven from the Department of Natural Resources' Bureau of Endangered Species, spoke on recovery efforts in Wisconsin after wolves were considered extinct in 1960. The wolf, Wydeven said, was native to Wisconsin going back to the melting of the glaciers about 10,000 years ago. Wolves numbered into the thousands in the early 1800s, but succumbed to the effects of a state bounty that ended in 1957.

In 1974, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the timber wolf a federally endangered species. Wisconsin followed suit a year later and soon initiated a recovery plan as required by law.

By 1980, wolves had moved into the state once again from Minnesota. Since then, wolf movements have been monitored through the use of radio collars, snow tracking and howl surveys. The DNR estimates there are approximately 350 wolves in Wisconsin, based on survey information at winter's end.

According to a 2003 DNR Progress Report of Wolf Population Monitoring, there were 94 wolf packs in Wisconsin ranging over 27 counties. During the six-month monitoring period, 58 wolves rigged with radio transmitters and followed on a regular basis.

Five of these wolves died. Another 17 were trapped and euthanized from five farms losing livestock to depredation. Wolves killed 13 cattle, 23 sheep and four dogs, according to the report. More than $4,000 in damages were paid out for these losses, based on the policy of compensating livestock owners for their losses.

One problem, according to Eric Koens of the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association, is that losses need to be verified, a requirement that takes time and often ends in a futile search for an animal that will never be found. In other cases, he said, herds are chased around pastures and through fences. "This costs people time and money."

Koens often disagrees with DNR estimates of attacks on domestic animals. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show there were nine verified wolf complaints in Wisconsin in 2001. This number has already grown to 50 so far during 2004, Koens said.

It's the potential for even greater losses that concerns him. As wolf populations increase, he believes it will not only become an increasing problem for livestock owners in northern Wisconsin, but will affect other areas of the state as wolves move into more heavily populated areas.

Chad Jankowski, past president of the Timber Wolf Information Network, agrees that wolves could move into other parts of the state. "They are a completely adaptable creature. They could expand their range almost anywhere."

Indeed, wolves have been discovered as far south as Interstate 94 between Madison and Milwaukee where a young male was hit by a car. In another case, the DNR documented a radio-collared wolf traveling from Wisconsin to Indiana, a distance of more than 400 miles.

Jankowski differentiates between natural carrying capacity and "social capacity," defined as population levels that society will tolerate. "They won't be accepted everywhere." As a result, they will have to be managed in some way, he said.

He anticipates management practices will vary in different parts of the state. Management will be more intense in the more heavily populated areas, he said.

When asked about the potential for a hunting season for wolves, Wydeven declined to say, but unofficial estimates are that when the population reaches 450, that possibility will be explored.

Outside of the Great Lakes area, wolves are almost non-existent. Wolves have been reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and parts of Idaho and Montana where the population is estimated at approximately 200 animals.


-Lee Fahrney can be reached at fiveoaks@chorus.net.

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