MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin wildlife officials have proposed new regulations governing when wolf hunters can train their dogs as they grapple with a lawsuit alleging their current wolf hunt policies will create bloody wolf-on-dog brawls.
It's unclear what impact the new rules will have in court, though. Department of Natural Resources officials don't expect to implement them for another year and a half, after they've studied data from the state's first two wolf seasons.
"All of these items are related," DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp wrote in a memo to the DNR's board. "This timeline will allow for the valuable experience from two hunting and trapping seasons and adequate opportunity for engaging the public and stakeholder groups on wolf management direction."
State lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year establishing an annual wolf season from Oct. 15 to the end of February or whenever hunters reach a DNR-imposed kill quota. The bill allows hunters to trap wolves as well as hunt at night and hunt with up to six dogs after the gun deer season ends.
The DNR adopted a set of emergency rules in July implementing the bill. Those regulations created management zones and set the first statewide kill quota at 116 animals. They also limit dog use to daylight hours.
The hunt has left animal advocates outraged. In August a group of humane societies filed a lawsuit alleging the agency failed to impose any real restrictions on dog training and use, a shortcoming that sets the stage for deadly dog-wolf fights in the woods in violation of the state's animal cruelty statutes.
DNR attorneys have maintained wording in the wolf hunt bill didn't allow them to impose any restrictions on dog training in emergency rules, but Dane County Circuit Judge Peter Anderson in August temporarily banned training dogs on wolves or using them to hunt wolves while he weighs the case.
DNR officials have said they planned to impose more dog regulations in a permanent rules package. They posted their new plan on the agency's website during the last week of November.
Under those regulations, hunters would be allowed to train dogs on wolves during daylight hours during the wolf season and the month of March. Dogs would be allowed to pursue wolves but not kill them.
The rules also would require each dog be tattooed or wear a collar with its owner's name and address.
DNR Lands Division Administration Kurt Thiede said the training window allows hunters to train their dogs in snow, when they can easily identify through tracks whether a wolf is alone and avoid confrontations with a pack. It also helps prevent dogs from intruding on wolf pup summer group-ups, which can lead to fights, he said. And the identification requirements mirror the standards for bear hunting dogs, he said.
DNR officials plan to ask the Natural Resources Board on Wednesday for permission to hold four public hearings on the regulations next fall and winter. They hope to come back to the board for rule approval in the summer of 2014.
They said they want to give the public a chance to sound off on the rules and give themselves a chance to incorporate data from the first two wolf seasons into a final proposal. The current emergency rules remain in place until permanent rules, in whatever final form they take, is implemented.
The humane societies' attorneys said the permanent proposal is hardly an improvement. The rules still don't impose any leash or line requirements, they said. What's more, they said, in-season and March training raises the risk of dog-wolf battles because wolves are mating and breeding during those months and have little tolerance for other canines in their territory.
"DNR has made it clear that it will not put forward reasonable restrictions to protect dogs and wolves from deadly interactions unless ordered to do so," Jodi Habush Sinykin, one of the groups' attorneys, wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
Anderson is set to revisit the lawsuit on Dec. 20. This year's hunt could be over by then. As of Friday hunters were just 10 wolves shy of reaching the DNR's kill limit.
"There's no need for dogs," said Carl Sinderbrand, another attorney for the humane societies. "It makes no sense."