Gray wolf in woods near Wisconsin Dells file photo

A gray wolf pauses in some woods near the Wisconsin Dells in this 2012 file photo.

This has been a deadly year for bear-hunting hounds.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' dog depredation report, 23 hounds have been killed by wolves while being used to hunt bears or being trained to hunt bears since June 3, tying the record 23 killed in 2006, according to Brad Koele, DNR wildlife damage specialist. Three pet dogs have also been killed.

Only six dogs were killed last year, but Koele says that was an aberration — at least 20 were killed in each of the four years before that. Black bear hunters in Wisconsin can use dogs until Oct. 1 and can hunt without dogs until Oct. 8.

"It's not that this year is abnormally high, it's that last year was abnormally low," says Koele. "I don't have an answer for why."

The owners of the dogs can claim up to $2,500 from the state, though Koele says not all of them receive or ask for the full amount.

"Not all claims are maximum payments," he says.

Livestock, hunting dogs and pets are all eligible for compensation.

The death toll could be higher. Last year Republicans passed a bill establishing a wolf hunt in the state, but a provision in the bill allowing hunters to use dogs is tied up in court. However, dogs used to hunt wolves would not be eligible for compensation.

According to a study earlier this year from Michigan Tech, Wisconsin DNR data show that payouts for wolf attacks on hounds "costs the state more than it has spent for wolf attacks on any other category of domesticated animal, including calves, missing calves or cattle."

(Here's a table showing the compensation paid out in Wisconsin since 1985, when the program started.)

The Michigan Tech study found that the rate of wolf attacks on bear-hunting hounds in Wisconsin is two to seven times higher than in Michigan.

Researchers at the college, who teamed up with Michigan DNR researchers for the study, have a couple of ideas as to why. This bulletin from Michigan Tech says the research team found that bear baiting season starts earlier in Wisconsin and lasts longer.

“The longer you bait, the more opportunity you provide for wolves to discover and potentially defend bear-bait sites,” said Joseph Bump, a Michigan Tech wildlife ecologist, in the bulletin. “Most hunters release their dogs at bait sites, and the longer the bait has been around, the more likely hunting dogs are to encounter territorial wolves who have found and are possibly defending the bait. So it appears that baiting is an important factor.”

There's another factor: Michigan doesn't pay dog owners for their dead dogs.

“Compensation can have multiple effects,” Bump says. “It is a reporting incentive, but it also creates an incentive for abuse. The net effect of compensation is far from clear, and it is an important factor to study further.”

Koele says providing an incentive for reporting attacks is important for tracking efforts by the state. Wisconsin contracts with USDA Wildlife Services to do a site investigation to verify that the depredation was caused by wolves, he says.

"We don't just pay based on what a hunter tells us," he says. "There's actually an investigation to make sure we're justly paying them."

He says it is possible, however, that because of the potential for compensation a hunter might be more likely to put a dog at risk.

"There could be that abuse occurring out there," he says. "We really wouldn't know."

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.