Wisconsin’s small population of endangered gray wolves grew by about 13 percent in the last year, a state Department of Natural Resources official said Thursday.
The first increase in the estimated population since hunting and trapping became legal again in 2012 indicates that the population can be managed without doing permanent harm, said the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, David MacFarland, but it remains unlikely that another hunt will take place this fall.
A federal judge in December placed the gray wolf back on the federal endangered species list, saying that Wisconsin and two other states had allowed too many of the animals to be killed before they have been able to spread throughout their historic range, which at one time included most of the lower 48 states.
State and federal officials are attempting to override the court ruling, but if that doesn’t happen before early July it will be difficult for the DNR to properly set kill limits and process license applications in time for a fourth hunt to start Oct. 15, MacFarland said.
The wolf population was taken off the endangered list in 2012 after federal officials decided its numbers had grown enough to allow hunting.
But the estimated population in Wisconsin plummeted after the DNR sharply increased the number that could be killed in 2013.
The kill limit was rolled back last year and that contributed to this year’s increase to a preliminary estimate of 746 animals, MacFarland.
“It does show that you can have sustainable harvest of a wolf population,” MacFarland said.
The wolf hunt has been an emotional and controversial issue. Some hunters, farmers and homeowners are passionate that the animal should be hunted because it sometimes menaces domestic animals and may make it more difficult to hunt for deer.
Opponents say a larger wolf population could be beneficial because it could help control the deer population and the crop damage deer cause.
Others argue that the state’s goal of 350 wolves is so low that it runs the risk of another collapse in the wolf population.
Wide swings in the wolf numbers aren’t unexpected, said Tim Van Deelen, a UW-Madison wildlife biologist who has studied the state’s wolves extensively and who has said a higher population goal would be more appropriate.
“I would expect some unpredictability in the population response because we have not had a constant yearly harvest rate and even if we did, it would take some time for the population to come to a new equilibrium,” Van Deelen said.
Hunters killed 154 wolves last year. Most — 123 of the animals — were trapped and shot, 22 were shot without being trapped and three were killed with bows and arrows.
Hunters have gone over their limits in each of the three seasons. In 2012 they killed 116, just one over the limit. In 2013 the limit was more than doubled to 251, and six extra were killed. The 2014 limit was 150 and hunters went four over.
The hunt is divided in six geographic zones. State law requires the DNR to give hunters a 24-hour notice before closing a zone, but officials in 2014 allowed the hunt to continue for more than 24 hours after the limit was reached.
By state law, the season begins on Oct. 15 and runs until the limit is met or the end of February.
The gray wolf nearly vanished from the lower 48 states by the time the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. Only a few hundred remained in extreme northeastern Minnesota along with a small number on Isle Royale in Michigan.
The federal government has attempted four times since 2003 to remove the wolf’s protection, saying the animal has exceeded repopulation goals. Each time, the plans were withdrawn or overturned in court.
In December, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington, D.C., ordered wolves in Minnesota relisted as threatened and wolves in Michigan and Wisconsin reclassified as endangered.
Howell’s order bans wolf hunting and trapping in all three states. In Wisconsin and Michigan, killing wolves caught preying on domestic animals is also forbidden.
The order is being appealed, and members of Congress are attempting to pass legislation overriding the court.