Wolves still real threat to WI livestock, other domestic animals

Dan Hansen
Virtually no animal currently found in Wisconsin generates more controversy, confusion or emotional extremes than the gray wolf.

Virtually no animal currently found in Wisconsin generates more controversy, confusion or emotional extremes than the gray wolf (Canis lupus).

Farmers who have lost livestock to the animals, and people who have seen hunting dogs and family pets killed, would prefer fewer wolves on the landscape. 

Many native American tribes, who claim a kinship with wolves, and individuals and organizations who oppose most hunting, trapping and even some animal agriculture, appear to favor unchecked wolf population growth throughout the state.

Some people have an irrational fear of wolves, seeing them as a sinister threat to humans, while others tend to romanticize them as benevolent predators taking only weak or sick wild animals. 

The reality is wolves are apex predators at the top of the food chain that don’t distinguish between wild and domestic animals. The state’s largest carnivores can, and will, kill a sheep, calf, cow, hunting dog or pet, just as quickly and effectively as a deer or elk.

Remarkable recovery

The recovery of the gray wolf population in Wisconsin and neighboring states is one of the true successes of the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) that was signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon.

Its goal was to prevent the extinction of imperiled plant and animal life, and to recover and maintain those populations by removing or lessening threats to their survival.

In 1974, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) added gray wolves in the lower 48 states to the list of federally protected species under the ESA. In 1975, wolves were listed as a state endangered species. By 1980, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) counted 25 wolves in northern Wisconsin, as a few packs moved in from across the Minnesota border.

The DNR completed a wolf recovery plan in 1989 that set a state goal for reclassifying wolves as threatened once the population remained at or above 80 for three years. A new management plan in 1999, set a delisting goal of 250 wolves in late winter outside of Indian reservations, and a management goal of 350 wolves outside of Indian reservations. 

In 1999, wolves were reclassified to state threatened status with 205 wolves in the state. In 2004, wolves were removed from the state threatened species list and were reclassified as a protected wild animal with 373 wolves in the state.

Since then Wisconsin’s wolf population has continued on an upward trajectory, often growing by 15 to 16 percent annually. As of April 2020, the DNR estimated the state’s wolf population at 1,195 animals in more than 256 packs found in several regions of the state.

Wolf conflicts

The significant increase in wolf numbers, coupled with an inability of state authorities to control problem animals due to their protection led to a corresponding increase in the level of frustration among hunters, farmers, public officials, conservation organizations, pet owners and much of the general public.

Initially, farms with the most wolf predation tended to be near large blocks of public land like the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, according to Dave Ruid, a supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which investigates such livestock killings. 

However, those problems have spread to central Wisconsin. Ashleigh Calaway and her husband raise beef cattle on their Wood County farm in the town of Pittsville, while her in-laws, Ray and Barb Calaway, hold the sheep herd on an adjoining farm.

RELATED: Wisconsin farm family lives wolf attack nightmare

“In July 2019, after a long day of hay-making, everyone slept like a rock,” she recalled. “But when my father-in-law walked out the next morning to check the flock of sheep, he found them massacred by wolves. Some of them were killed in one strike, while others were strung from one end of the pasture to the other. Most of the sheep were unrecognizable, with just their head or rib cage all that was left. Thirty years of our family’s blood, sweat and tears were gone along with 30 years of genetics.”

Three days later, Diane Schiller's 18-year-old dog, Tucker, was killed by a wolf just a quarter mile from the Calaway's farm.

Calaway said the family is slowly rebuilding their flock, “but we still cannot bring ourselves to put them on summer pasture. We are also taking extra measures to protect the beef herd, but that comes with a lot of extra cost and time,” she added.

Eric Koens raised registered Polled Hereford cattle for over 33 years on a 400-acre farm in northwestern Wisconsin. He has also worked closely with USDA Wildlife Services staff responding to complaints from farmers who’ve experienced depredations, indirect damage and livestock harassment by wolves.

Koens emphasized that indirect damage caused by wolves is often more of a problem than the livestock they actually kill. “If a wolf pack runs 200 head of cattle through a fence, the farmer needs to spend days retrieving those animals, some of which could run on the road and get hit by vehicles,” he said. 

“The stress put on the animals also can substantially reduce production, result in abortions and weaken the animals to make them more susceptible to illness, and there’s no compensation for this type of damage.”

Wolf predation has not only taken a toll on livestock farmers, owners of hunting dogs and family pets, the state also has paid out nearly $3 million in damage claims.

Wolf predation costs

Wolf predation has not only taken a toll on livestock farmers, owners of hunting dogs and family pets, the state also has paid out nearly $3 million in damage claims.

In an attempt to build tolerance for the increased wolf population, the state established an income-tax checkoff in1983, allowing residents to donate to support federally protected species. It earmarked 3%, or up to $100,000 a year, to pay for damage from wolves and other protected species.

According to USDA Wildlife Services, from 2003 through early September 2013, there were 993 verified wolf complaints in Wisconsin. “During that period 369 farms had verified losses, including nine horses, 82 sheep, 50 captive deer, 398 poultry, 535 cattle and 252 dogs, During the latest survey period, the agency tallied 90 wolf complaints, up from fewer than 70 the previous year.

Wisconsin made its first wolf damage payment in 1985 to a Douglas County farmer who received $200 for wolf-killed sheep. As of April 2020, the state paid out over $2.7 million in compensation for wolf depredations.

This amount includes nearly $1.8 million for killed and missing calves, $174,000 for wolf-killed cattle, $47,465 for sheep and $913,966 for wolf-killed hunting dogs and pet animals.

Resisting delisting

Both listing and delisting of species under the ESA were to be done by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) based on sound scientific evidence. 

However, this has not been the case with the gray wolf when scientific evidence clearly called for removing it from ESA protection.

Wolves were federally reclassified to threatened on April 1, 2003, but on January 31, 2005 wolves were re-listed as endangered due to a lawsuit. 

Wolves were removed from the federal list in Wisconsin and the remainder of the Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment on March 12, 2007, because the population goal had not only been met but had nearly tripled. Despite the scientific evidence, the Center for Biological Diversity and its allies got a court order blocking this mandated action.

A new FWS delisting proposal for the wolves was published in 2011, with FWS stating that, “Wolves continue to exceed recovery goals and are no longer threatened with extinction.”

A Department of Natural Resources conservation warden collects information on an illegally-killed gray wolf in late January in Bayfield County. The animal was shot, transported to the site and dumped.

With wolves removed from the endangered species list, Wisconsin enacted a law requiring an annual wolf season between November and February. Hunting/trapping seasons were held in 2012, 2013 and 2014 when hunters and trappers took 528 wolves.

The delisting lasted for only three years, until Dec. 19, 2014, when U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington, D.C., in response to a lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the United States, ordered that wolves in Wisconsin, 

Michigan and Minnesota placed the animals back on the endangered species list.

In the fall of 2020, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced that wolves once again would be removed from the federal ESA effective Jan. 4, 2021.

Harvest controversy

The delisting announcement opened the door for a statewide hunting/trapping season in January or February. However, it also brought controversy, confusion and emotional responses.

The Department of Natural Resources was criticized for failing to follow state law and conduct a harvest this winter until it was forced to do so by a court order.

Greg Kazmierski, vice chairman of the Natural Resources Board, said the DNR should have been ready to go with a season as soon as the wolves came off the endangered species list Jan. 4, as required by state law. “The department has enough data from previous wolf seasons to set quotas that protect the overall population’s viability,” he added.

Some critics of the harvest claimed the wolf population was still too fragile to support hunting. Chippewa tribal officials felt they weren’t adequately consulted prior to the harvest. 

John D. Johnson, chairman of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Voigt Intertribal Task Force, said, “wolf pelts are in bad shape this time of year which means the hunt was all about killing.” However, several successful hunters reported pelts were in prime condition.

Some media outlets also contributed to the controversy and confusion. A widely circulated newspaper article headline intimated that hunters and trappers had vastly exceeded the harvest goal, which was 200 animals. The latest numbers reveal that 218 animals were harvested, just 18 above what was described as “very conservative goal” by DNR officials.

The Ojibwe tribes also added to the confusion by claiming 81 of the allocated permits, in accordance with their treaty rights. However, it was clear they opposed the harvest, and likely had no intention of participating. Based on current information, there is no indication that any tribal permits were actually issued and that no tribal members legally harvested any wolves.

Future prospects

Following the February season, DNR Communications Director Sarah Hoye reported that Wisconsin’s wolf population remains stable. “It’s healthy, capable of sustaining harvest, and remains well connected to neighboring wolf populations in Michigan and Minnesota,” she said.

Following the February season, DNR officials reported that Wisconsin’s wolf population remains stable.

Although Ashleigh Calaway and her family have suffered significant losses to their sheep flock, she doesn’t want to see the wolf population eliminated. "But I do want to see the population managed so we can coexist in harmony; I want to see the ecosystem reestablished so that wolves learn that humans are not on their easy-prey list,” she said.

While it’s possible that a political decision or court ruling could place wolves back on the endangered list, Randy Johnson, DNR large carnivore specialist, reaffirmed the state’s commitment to science-based wolf management.

“Wolves have a place in Wisconsin, and the DNR is committed to keeping wolves on the landscape at biologically and socially-acceptable levels,” he said.

Johnson also noted some people mistakenly believe that when wolves are removed from the federal endangered species list they’re unprotected. 

“This is not true,” he stressed. “Instead, delisting allows the DNR to manage the species to best achieve biological and social objectives while minimizing conflicts, which is similar to how we manage many other species of wildlife in the state. This approach includes a regulated harvest season informed by science and research, as well as a fully integrated approach to dealing with wolf conflict and depredations, all while maintaining a sustainable wolf population in the state.”

Some people mistakenly believe that when wolves are removed from the federal endangered species list they’re unprotected. DNR officials say that's not true, and that delisting allows the DNR to manage the species to best achieve biological and social objectives while minimizing conflicts.

The agency is currently preparing for a fall 2021 wolf harvest season through a transparent and science-based process that will include coordination with tribal partners and public input on harvest objectives. Plans are to present quota recommendations to the Natural Resources Board at its August meeting.

DNR continues to partner with USDA-Wildlife Services to address wolf conflicts in Wisconsin. If you suspect wolves in the depredation of livestock, pets or hunting dogs, or if wolves are exhibiting threatening or dangerous behavior, contact USDA-Wildlife Services staff. In northern Wisconsin, call 1-800-228-1368 or 715-369-5221. In southern Wisconsin, call 1-800-433-0663 or 920-324-4514.