The Hunt is On

Wolves in Minnesota and Wisconsin have gone from being protected as an endangered species into the gun sights of hunters in a little less than a year.

Beginning in October, 201 of the 800 wolves can be killed or trapped in the Badger State, the state Department of Natural Resources announced last week. In Minnesota, as of this week it appears they can hunt or trap 400 of their 3,000 wolves a year in a plan moving through the state Capitol.

The federal government took the wolf off the Endangered Species protection for Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in January.

The argument for the hunt in Wisconsin is that the state has over 800 wolves in its population and they are threatening livestock, dogs and people. Most of the packs run north of Highway 8 way up north but there are some in the central region as far south as Marquette County.

Lawmakers say they have to protect farmers’ animals. And they’re allowing hunters a full arsenal to do it with. Wolves can be hunted with firearms, bows, crossbows and leg traps. Bait, dogs and electronic calls are also legal.

But in 2010, only 47 calves, 34 dogs, 16 cows, and six sheep were killed in Wisconsin. The dogs were usually out hunting bears, but in some cases they were family pets. Nonetheless, the state has a fund where livestock owners can claim refunds for their animals that are killed by wolves. The state paid $214,794 in wolf depredation payments in 2012. It paid $155,063 in 2011 and $202,843 in 2010.  Most of that, as always, has gone to factory farmers. Many of the same names keep showing up on the claims list.

I was walking in a farm field one night along the banks of the Kickapoo River in southwestern Wisconsin and startled pigs on a farm. Their commotion had the farmer out shortly with a shotgun firing blindly across the field I was in. I suspect, like me, a wolf confronted with that situation would get out of there fast. No need for the farmer to go hunting.

Despite nearly hunting the animal to extinction in the past, and the fact that wolves tend to avoid humans at all costs, (how many can actually claim to have seen a wolf in the wild?) the fear of the wolf as a threat to humans still permeates the hunting argument.

I’ve seen a wolf once in my extensive wilderness travels. We almost hit it with our Ford Expedition on a gravel road in northern Saskatchewan, having just finished a four-week canoe trip in Nunavut. After running in front of the truck the wolf stopped and stared back at us while my partner scrambled for a camera. He saunter into the brush. I’ve heard the howls of wolves at night many times, along the banks of the Namakagon River in northern Wisconsin, in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, and in northern Manitoba for some.

A Facebook page recently formed, apparently so that information can be spread about the predation of wolves and their perceived threat to humans.

The fact is only two people in North America have been killed by wolves in 90 years--one in Saskatchewan and one in Alaska. The death in 2006 in Saskatchewan was caused by a pack of wolves that had gotten used to humans after feeding on a town dump for years.

Here’s one scientist’s take on wolf vs. human interaction.

Ethologist Valerius Geist of the University of Calgary in Alberta has seven hypothetical stages which lead to wolf attacks on humans based on historical and modern accounts.

* The first outlined stage is scarcity of wild game, be it due to poaching, habitat loss or seasonal migration.

* Wolves begin approaching human habitations; though limit their visits to nocturnal hours. Their presence is usually established by barking matches with local dogs.

* After a certain amount of time, wolves begin to frequent human habitations in daylight hours, and observe people and livestock at a distance.

* The wolves begin acting bolder by attacking small livestock and pets during daylight, sometimes pursuing their prey up to verandas. At this point the wolves do not focus on humans, but will growl and act threateningly toward them.

* The wolves begin attacking large-bodied livestock and may follow riders, as well as mount verandas and look into windows.

* People begin to be harassed, usually in a playful manner. The wolves will chase people over short distances and nip at them, though will retreat if confronted.

* Wolves begin attacking people in predatory fashions.

Stage seven simply hasn’t happened in Wisconsin, although the state Department of Natural Resources killed 16 wolves last year for fear of human safety.

A legislative committee earlier this year held a hearing in Madison on the bill where it was pointed out that if hunters reduce the number of wolves in the state to when they had “threatened” status, the state would be in constant flux of protecting the animal and hunting it to extremes. The state’s last target for an acceptable number of wolves was 350, a number that it came up with in 1992 when there were maybe 25 wolves here. They’re sticking with that now.

There were 3,000-5,000 wolves in the state around 1900, but by 1960 it was officially declared there were no wolves in Wisconsin. The few that were left in Minnesota started coming across the border in the 1970s which led to the population now.

When I lived in northern Minnesota in the Ely area, locals would claim wolves were “range wolves” (also vernacular for coyotes) threatening man and beast, and then they would shoot them with nonchalance. Lack of game wardens made that quite easy.

Another cautionary note from scientists is that allowing dogs to hunt wolves will just increase wolf vs. dog attacks since the wolves will start to view all dogs as mortal enemies. That, of course, will lead to more animosity toward wolves, since they are not dogs with humans at the helm.

In Alaska, they don’t need dogs to hunt their wolves. They can use airplanes and helicopters. Then-Gov. Sarah Palin in 2007 approved the controversial move. There were intense TV campaigns pitching both sides of the issue airing at the time. Being so big, it’s tough to guess how many animals are there. The estimate is 7,000-11,000 and the hunting argument is to protect caribou and moose from predation. Trappers and hunters kill about 1,400 a year, but there are no limits.

There are about 5,000 wolves lower 48. Hunting goes on in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming where the wolf was delisted in 2010. There are about 1,800 wolves there. In Montana, hunters weren’t doing a good enough job killing wolves and trapping is now allowed.