Wolves have been seen in counties not considered by the DNR as “wolf country” for more than a decade already. This 82-pound male wolf was mistaken for a coyote by a landowner in spring, 2003, in Door County. / Photo by Kevin Naze
For the first time in 55 years, licensed hunters and trappers will be able to legally target one of the most controversial symbols of the wilderness as Wisconsin’s wolf season opens today.
While only a fraction of the state’s 700,000 hunters and trappers paid the $10 application fee by the early September deadline, those chosen by random computer draw — 19,786 residents and 486 out-of-state residents — beat long odds by getting picked for one of just 1,160 tags.
Luck of the draw won’t play as big a role over the next 4-1/2 months, however. Tag-holders who want do more than just enjoy the fresh air have their work cut out for them.
Last winter, biologists estimated a minimum population of at least 850 wolves outside Indian Reservations in Wisconsin. Most hunters armed with little more than speculation believe the number long ago passed 1,000.
No matter, with wolves spread out over so many square miles, the odds are against most hunters even seeing a wolf, let alone getting a shot. Experienced trappers who live in areas with known pack activity could fare much better. But with hunters outnumbering trappers roughly 36 to 1, it’s likely that relatively few trappers were drawn.
When the hunt was first proposed, my thoughts were that it would be best for the DNR to sell at 10,000 tags at a reasonable price (far lower than the current $100 for residents and $500 for non-residents) and open the season Nov. 17, the same day as the nine-day gun deer hunt this fall. I believe that would have enticed many lapsed deer hunters back to the Northwoods. Right or wrong, many blame wolves for thinning the herd in their former hunt areas.
A combo wolf/deer hunt license could have been offered for a fair price, say $50, for example, or a stand-alone wolf tag for $30. With a reporting system similar to sturgeon spearing and its emergency closure in place, you’d almost certainly ensure that the quota wouldn’t be exceeded.
Instead, we have a much smaller number of tag-holders. Success rates in Montana and Idaho have been less than one percent in some seasons, and while some say that’s comparing apples to oranges, I’d bet we’ll still far well short of quota.
Wisconsin initially estimated a 20 percent success rate when figuring how many tags to award, but quickly heard from many who believe that far too generous. The state then went with 10 percent.
Native American tribes were allowed to declare up to half of the quota. It is unknown if they will use any, given that many tribes revere the wolf as a brother and fellow hunter. The 1,160 licenses awarded by random draw are equal to 10 times the non-tribal wolf quota (116) after tribal declarations of 85 wolves were subtracted.
Deer, elk affected
DNR lands division administrator Kurt Thiede said there’s a real need to lower wolf numbers.
Wolves have reduced deer hunting opportunities in some northern and central forests, and have slowed efforts to grow the Clam Lake elk herd. Too, dozens of farmers and dog owners suffer losses of livestock, hunting hounds and backyard pets each year.
In the past decade, federal agents have killed more than 100 wolves that were depredating livestock or showed potential for human contact. Illegal wolf shootings occur annually, and wolves are hit by vehicles on roadways, fall victim to disease and old age, or are involved in deadly battles with other wolves.
Still, the numbers continue to grow. For wolves to receive enough public support in the future, DNR wolf specialist Adrian Wydeven knows wolves must be killed.
“Whether it’s a landowner, a wildlife services person or a member of the general public doesn’t really matter to me,” Wydeven said. “I think we need to manage the wolf population.”
Hunters will pay
New this year, the $10 application fee and $100 licenses for wolf tags ($500 for nonresidents) will be used toward depredation payments to owners of livestock and dogs.
The DNR has shelled out more than $1 million in fees since 1985, including more than $200,000 in 2010 alone. About two-thirds of the money went to owners of hunting hounds or calves. Sheep, cows, turkeys, chickens, fenced deer, pet dogs and horses have also been killed or wounded by wolves.
Trappers and hunters using howl or distress calls will have some successes, but Thiede believed the use of trailing hounds could increase the success rate for some hunters. Instead, opponents got a temporary injunction from Dane County Circuit Court Judge Peter Anderson.
State statute authorized the use of dogs beginning Nov. 26, the day after the nine-day gun deer hunt ends, but Anderson didn’t schedule a hearing on the department’s request to lift the injunction until Dec. 20.
It’s clear that wolves need management, and clearer still that a hunting and trapping season that might take 50 to 100 wolves won’t even be enough to keep up with annual recruitment.
Obviously, the DNR wants to be cautious in the first year, but I believe they’ll need to get far more aggressive in the future if they want to move toward the minimum off-reservation goal of 350 goal — a number that was exceeded already in 2003-2004.
Did you draw a wolf tag for this historic hunt? We’d love to hear how you plan to increase your odds of success. Will you hunt or trap the opener, or do you plan to wait for colder weather to make sure wolf pelts are prime? Will you hire a Northwoods’ guide, or try a do-it-yourself hunt with wolf, coyote or predator distress calls? Drop an e-mail and let’s chat.
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Kevin Naze is a freelance outdoors writer. E-mail him at email@example.com or call (920) 883-9792.