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Wisconsin DNR preparing wolf management plan, population update in summer

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Gray wolf

A judge restored federal protections for gray wolves across much of the U.S. on Thursday after they were removed in the waning days of the Trump administration, casting uncertainty on the future of Wisconsin’s contentious hunt.

The incoming leader of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources policy board is questioning whether the agency should include a population target in its forthcoming wolf management plan.

The agency began working last year to revise the state’s 15-year-old wolf management plan.

Randy Johnson, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, told the Natural Resources Board Wednesday the agency plans to release a draft next month for public comment and have a finalized version ready for board review by this spring.

Johnson said the plan will be based on factors including gray wolf ecology, human interaction and cultural significance and will be informed by 138 priorities advanced by stakeholder groups, which include conservation groups as well as representatives of the state’s 11 native tribes.

Johnson said the agency has not determined whether to include a target population level or an “outcome based” objective, though there is consensus within the committee to minimize human-wolf conflicts.

“Defining what a healthy population is is a difficult thing to do,” Johnson said.

Board members appeared split on the value of a numeric target.

“Either a number or a range would be very important for this board,” said Terry Hilgenberg. “Unless you have a number or a range, you’re kind of shooting in the dark.”

Greg Kazmierski, who was elected Wednesday as the board’s new chair, suggested triggers to dictate when there are too many or too few wolves, similar to the way the state manages deer and bear populations, saying few people believe the agency’s population estimates.

Greg Kazmierski


“I call it management by pain,” Kazmierski said. “If we’re feeling the pain, we need to move population in a downward direction to alleviate it.”

The current plan, adopted in 1999 and last updated in 2007, has a population goal of 350 wolves.

The DNR estimates there were at least 1,034 wolves in the state as of April 2020, but the agency has not completed a population survey since hunters killed at least 218 wolves, exceeding combined state and tribal quotas, during a court-ordered hunt in February following removal of federal protections.

Because that hunt occurred during the breeding season and later than any previously sanctioned hunt, wildlife officials said they could not accurately predict the impact to the population.

Johnson said the DNR is analyzing data gathered during this winter’s survey and would release a revised population estimate this summer.

This winter’s hunt — mandated by state law when wolves are not listed as endangered — was put on hold this fall by a Dane County judge who ruled the DNR must first update its management plan and adopt rules for setting quotas and issuing licenses.

The state is facing a separate federal lawsuit from six Native American tribes that accuse the DNR of violating treaty rights and endangering an animal they consider sacred.

The DNR received more than 15,000 public comments last spring split almost evenly between those with favorable and unfavorable views of wolves but with two-thirds of people saying it is “important to maintain a wolf population in Wisconsin.”

Environmental reporter Chris Hubbuch's favorite stories of 2021

Stories are a bit like children when it comes to picking favorites. But then who has room in their wallet for pictures of 278 kids? So here are five that kind of stand out in my mind. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I did writing them. 


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