Wisconsin wolf population reaches record high

In this February 2008 photo, gray wolves howl at an exhibit area at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.
John Flesher | AP 2008 file

New data released Thursday by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources show the number of gray wolves in the state at an all-time high since tracking began nearly 40 years ago.

The count that took place over the 2015-16 winter estimated between 866 and 897 wolves, spread across northern Wisconsin in 222 packs.

That represents a 16 percent increase from last year's wolf count.

"I was a little surprised how much it grew," said Adrian Wydeven, coordinator of the Timber Wolf Alliance at Northland College and former longtime head of the Wisconsin DNR's wolf program. "Although we did expect the population to come up some with the lack of any kind of a hunting/trapping season."

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A federal judge placed wolves in the Great Lakes region back under endangered species protection in late 2014.

That ended three years of wolf hunting in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin's wolf population plummeted to about 660 in 2014, after hunters killed about 250 wolves in the second year of the state's wolf hunt. But numbers rebounded about 12 percent the following year after the state's wolf quota was reduced.

Wolves became nearly extinct in Wisconsin in the early 1980s. The population reached a low point of only 14 in 1985, before beginning a slow recovery.

Wisconsin's wolf numbers now trail only Alaska and Minnesota, Wydeven said. The Minnesota DNR estimated the state's wolf population at about 2,200 last August.

Wisconsin's wolf count was compiled with the help of more than 100 volunteer trackers, including Wydeven.

"Volunteer trackers are a critical component of Wisconsin's wolf monitoring program," said David MacFarland, the Wisconsin DNR's large carnivore specialist. "Department staff relies upon their efforts to ensure we have high quality data."