Monday is the opening of the first regulated wolf hunt in Wisconsin. About two weeks from now, Minnesota's wolf hunting and trapping seasons begin.
The hunts mark a new era for wolf management in the Midwest. Some people hail them as the ultimate result of a successful effort to protect the wolf under the Endangered Species Act; others say wolves should never be subjected to hunting.
The hunts in both states have faced legal challenges, with different results. But those lawsuits are just the beginning of what promises to be a fight that is far from over.
The legal case in Wisconsin was narrowly focused on using dogs to hunt wolves. A coalition of groups argued that the state had not set enough restrictions or provided enough training to protect dogs.
The court granted their request for an injunction that prevents the use of dogs, while it considers arguments; the next hearing is scheduled for Dec. 20, well into the season.
But the use of dogs is far from the only concern among Wisconsin conservation and environmental groups. Nancy Warren, the Great Lakes director for the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, said her group and others object to the target kill number of 201 and the length of the season. At this time of year, pups are only about six months old, and the hunt doesn't end until the end of February, which encompasses breeding time.
"One of our biggest issues is the fact that this hunt is not based on sound science or peer reviewed research," Warren said. "It's being spearheaded by a group of very vocal but minority hunters -- it was based on misinformation, but many of these aspects really don't lend themselves to a lawsuit."
For example, Warren said there's no widely accepted research on whether killing key wolves in a pack could disrupt the pack in ways that might result in even more wolves turning to livestock instead of deer for food.
Warren said the Wisconsin Legislature approved a law for the hunt in less than three months and mandated that the DNR to set the rules incorporating its requirements. She expects significant revisions next year.
"We will be looking at revising the wolf management plan; that's one of the directives that the Natural Resources Board ordered the DNR to do," she said, "so we'll be active players in that role.
"They'll also be developing permanent rules for a wolf hunting season. And we hope to be an active participant in that as well."
Wisconsin's wolf population is estimated at 850.
That complaint about plans for the hunt being rushed through appears in the Minnesota court case, too. Two groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Howling for Wolves, asked the Court of Appeals to halt the hunt while it considers their argument that the DNR did not follow proper procedures in gathering public opinion. The DNR said it followed the rules.
The court denied that request for an injunction last week. It will take up the larger question, but no one expects a quick ruling. Meanwhile, the groups are considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
And they say the early loss in court won't keep them from continuing their battle against the hunt. Howling for Wolves founder Maureen Hackett said she is engaged in a long-term effort to get the DNR to embrace a new approach to managing wildlife.
Hackett said hunting and fishing licenses aren't the only way to fund the agency, and she thought programs like the chickadee checkoff on the state income tax form are just the beginning.
"National statistics show that wildlife viewing makes up more people out in the wilderness or in the wild, 4-to-1 over hunters," she said. "And they spend more money. But there's probably many other ways that people would be more than happy to give to the state to have this wildlife left alone and not hunted."
Minnesota has about 3,000 wolves; the DNR has set a goal to kill 400 of them this season.
The federal government has no objections to the hunts planned in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be monitoring the wolf population for five years, and the agency says a hunt could help provide information about wolves and the possible effects of a hunting season.
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