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Wisconsin's new wolf season did not worsen wolf poaching during deer season. / Herb Lange/Wisconsin DNR

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Many folks predicted Wisconsin’s inaugural wolf season this year would trigger a poaching boom and put gray wolves back on the federal government’s endangered species list.

Even more predicted Northwoods hunters would kill record numbers of wolves accidentally during November’s nine-day gun-deer season. Why? Because it’s legal for the first time since 1986 to shoot coyotes in the northern third of Wisconsin during deer season. From 1987 through 2011, coyote hunting was forbidden in the Northwoods during deer season to prevent mistaken-identity wolf shootings.

Both predictions fizzled. The Department of Natural Resources reported seven illegal wolf-kills statewide during the 2012 gun-deer season, the same number reported during the 2011 season. That’s two fewer than in 2006 and one fewer than in 2009.

Further, most hunters apparently can tell wolves from coyotes. The Northwoods’ illegal wolf kill during deer season was three, the same as in 2011. In fact, the DNR recorded 25 wolf poachings statewide for all of 2011, but 17 so far in 2012, said Bill Vander Zouwen, the agency’s wildlife management section chief.

Granted, we’ll never find every poached wolf, but that’s been the case since the agency started tracking this in 1979.

Why such dire expectations of hunters? Sure, some hunters badmouth wolves and sport anti-wolf bumper stickers. But most have supported wolves since Wisconsin got serious 30 years ago about rebuilding the population.

During the past six years alone, sportsmen-fueled tax revenues from the federal government’s Pittman-Robertson program provided nearly $2 million to the DNR for wolf management. Wisconsin contributed nearly another $1 million from hunters’ license fees and endangered-resources funds.

Even so, we heard many faith-based predictions that wolf season would unleash poachers. When I asked a learned friend for evidence to back his forecast of wanton wolf slaughter, he said I didn’t understand the mentality of young Northwoods “rednecks.” Because he lives there and I don’t, he dismissed my doubts.

True, I live in central Wisconsin, but just because people badmouth wolves doesn’t mean they’ll poach one. And if they are so hateful, why would a wolf season trigger worse behavior?

Where wolves are concerned, the chasm between attitudes and behaviors can be vast and ever-changing. In his book, “Navigating Environmental Attitudes,” Professor Tom Heberlein of UW-Madison recalls how wildlife managers in Michigan’s U.P. believed the region’s people so hated wolves 20 years ago that wolves never could return.

Their proof? When four wolves were released in the U.P. in spring 1974, all died by autumn at human hands; two by gun, one by trap and one by Goodyear. Or was it Michelin?

Wildlife managers never forgot the failure. Meanwhile, wolves were returning on their own. When Heberlein studied attitudes toward wolves in the 1990s, he found 57 percent of U.P. residents supported wolf restoration, 9 percent opposed it and 34 percent were neutral.

U.P. wildlife managers scoffed, doubting Heberlein’s data. Soon after, as if to prove them right, a U.P. truck driver spotted a wolf, sped up and ran it over. However, a citizen saw the killing and reported it. If “everyone” hated wolves, why report the trucker?

Apparently, most Yoopers are law-abiding, whether they like wolves or not, just like Wisconsinites. Today, U.P. wolves number about 700, and Michigan is discussing a wolf hunt.

Another friend who traps the Northwoods scoffs at tough talk from guys who say they would poach a wolf without hesitating.

“Lots of guys say that, but when they actually see a wolf or trap one, they don’t kill it,” he said. “They might not like wolves, but they won’t risk poaching one.”

Loose talk about wolf poaching, after all, attracts DNR wardens. Depending on which laws they violate, wolf poachers can be fined thousands of dollars and lose their hunting privileges.

And be assured, the DNR investigates poachings. Of the state’s 101 recorded wolf poachings since 1979, 45 were discovered because the wolf carried a research collar. When a wolf stops moving for a day or so, the collar emits a mortality signal that starts a DNR search.

The other poachings? Most are reported by hunters or trappers stumbling across a wolf carcass. Either that or someone who knows the poacher turns him in after he brags about it.

So who’s the bigger fool: those who claim they’ll poach wolves, those who boast of poaching or those who cite such boasts as predictors of hunter behavior?

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for Press-Gazette Media. Email him at patrickdurkin@charter.net.

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