Wolf hunt approved in Wisconsin as legal fight continues

Roaming wolves
Wolves roam near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. Wisconsin's wolf hunt will begin next week with up to 200 animals to be harvested, the state Department of Natural Resources Board has determined.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2010

Wisconsin's wolf hunt will begin next week with up to 200 animals to be harvested, the state Department of Natural Resources Board determined at a hastily called meeting Monday in reaction to a court order requiring a hunt this month.

The unanimous board vote came even as the state was asking an appeals court to stop the hunt by putting last week's court order on hold. The state Department of Natural Resources and the board, represented by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, filed the motion Friday in state appeals court.

The Jefferson County judge's ruling from last week required the DNR to establish a wolf hunting and trapping season this month. The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty brought the lawsuit on behalf of Hunter Nation Inc., a Kansas-based hunting advocacy group.

Wisconsin law required there to be a wolf hunting season from early November through the end of February if the wolf is not on the endangered or threatened species list. It was removed from the federal endangered species list on Jan. 4.

The Wisconsin DNR board refused at a Jan. 22 meeting to start a hunt before November of this year, but the judge last week ordered that the hunt be implemented this month. Republican state lawmakers raised concerns that President Joe Biden might restore protections for the wolves before November.

The weeklong hunt approved at the board meeting Monday will run from Feb. 22 through Feb. 28. The permit application period begins at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday and closes at midnight Saturday. Results of a drawing for the 4,000 permits will be available on Feb. 22 and the winners will be able to hunt and trap as soon as they purchase their license and print their carcass tag.

The board voted to limit the number of wolves that can be killed during the seven-day hunt to 200. That limit was reached after considering the most recent wolf population estimate, the public response to wolf seasons conducted in 2012-2014, population models, the current management plan and other scientific data. During the previous three years of the hunt, 117 wolves were killed in 2012, 257 in 2013 and 154 in 2004 before a federal court returned the wolves to the endangered species list. Each of the state's previous three wolf hunts lasted two months.

According to DNR estimates, the number of wolves in the state has grown from 815 in 2012 to 1,034 last year. The DNR estimates 256 packs roamed the state in 2020.

The DNR staff recommended 2,000 permits be issued, but the board expanded it to 4,000 noting how compressed the season would be.

"We have a very short window here to reach those harvest goals and objectives," said board member Greg Kazmierski. Even with 4,000 permits, there will only be one hunter for every 4 miles of wolf habitat, he said.

"There was some concern from some people there would be a wolf hunter behind every tree, but that's certainly not the case," Kazmierski said.

Written comments in response to the hunt were accepted in advance, but no public comments were allowed during the meeting. When the issue was considered by the board in January, more than 1,400 written comments were submitted.

Supporters of the hunt contend the wolf population can withstand it and the wolves are a danger to livestock and pets. But opponents, including biologists and wildlife advocacy groups, contend the wolves, a native species to Wisconsin, have not fully recovered and continue to need protection so their numbers will not dwindle to the point of extinction. Native American tribes in Wisconsin have also registered opposition, saying the wolf is a sacred animal.

Wolves were wiped out across most of the U.S. by the 1930s under government-sponsored poisoning and trapping campaigns. A remnant population in the western Great Lakes region has since expanded to some 4,400 animals in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.