Although it’s well documented that Wisconsin’s gray wolf population is thriving, the impact wolves have on the state’s deer is not well noted.
“Some initial analysis has been done in the areas that have wolves in Wisconsin. When dealing with deer, it is minimal,” said Adrian Wydeven, DNR lead wolf biologist.
Wolves were extinct in the state by the 1960s, but the population rebounded to 725 in Wisconsin in 2010, according to information from the state Department of Natural Resource.
The wolf population came back through migration to Wisconsin from Minnesota, Wydeven said. The breeding packs mainly are located in the forested areas of northern and central Wisconsin, although sightings of solitary wolves are reported throughout the state.
“Wolves have been sighted in just about every county. Lone wolves travel extensively around the state,” Wydeven said.
The growth in Wisconsin’s population was gradual until 2000 when it jumped from 248 gray wolves to 725 in 2010.
Changing to grow
By the 1990s, two things happened that enabled the population to grow, Wydeven said.
“People’s acceptance and tolerance of wolves improved,” he said.
The state’s deer population also grew enough to produce steady food for wolves. The animals play an integral part in the forest’s eco system by reducing the impact of over-grazing by deer.
And illegal wolf kills decreased dramatically by the 1990s, Wydeven said.
Some hunting organizations, however, have a different view about whether wolves are affecting the state’s deer population.
The groups Whitetails Unlimited and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation argue the expanded wolf population has resulted in fewer deer, particularly in the northern and central forests of the state.
“It can be anywhere from 12 to 20 deer consumed by one wolf in a year,” said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
Deer also flee an area when they scent a wolf.
“It’s the impact of their presence that chases the deer away. If you’re a hunter and you have land you hunt on, if there’s a wolf, the deer are gone. It’s a predator-prey situation,” Meyer said.
Scientists with the DNR and University of Wisconsin-Madison are embarking on two multi-year studies to determine the impact of predators on the state’s deer population.
One study in northern Wisconsin will use radio telemetry to track fawns and determine how many are killed by predators and by which predators. Similar research is under way in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the two states will share results.
Another study, set to run for five years, uses a combination of field research methods and includes radio telemetry to study buck mortality.
Wolf monitoring is done through radio collars on some pack members and weekly aerial surveillance, Wydeven said.
Listed by the federal government as an endangered species from 1974 to 2003, the state’s goal was to bring the gray wolf population back to about 250 to 350 wolves. In 2003, the federal government listed the wolves as threatened which allowed landowners to kill predators to protect livestock.
Since 2003, the federal government changed its status for the wolf population in Wisconsin several times due to lawsuits. While the state lists gray wolves as protected, their federal status is endangered.
Under the 1974 Endangered Species Act, federal status trumps state designation.
The state DNR has filed a petition to remove the gray wolf from the federal threatened list. It is expected to be answered soon, Wydeven said.
“The latest we’ve heard is that the federal government has a new listing rule to be published in April,” he said.
After the rule is published, a public comment period will be scheduled. The comments will be analyzed and by late 2011, Wydeven said he anticipates wolves will be off the federal endangered species list, which would allow control of the gray wolf population.
Problem wolves could be eliminated in Wisconsin by the state Department of Natural Resources if the animals are removed from the federal endangered species list. But even if wolves do come off the list it still could be years before the public could hunt the animals. A story in Monday's Green Bay Press-Gazette about that timeline was not clear.
Liz Welter writes for the Marshfield News-Herald.