Wolf Population Near 400

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Results of overwinter wolf surveys that estimate the current population of gray wolves in Wisconsin at around 400 animals reinforce a recent decision by the state Natural Resources Board to remove the species from the state endangered and threatened species list, according to state wildlife officials. Wolves will continue to be protected in Wisconsin under state and federal law, but wildlife officials say the change will eventually give them more control over dealing with problem wolves.

There now are between 373 and 410 wolves in Wisconsin, according to Adrian Wydeven, mammalian ecologist for the Department of Natural Resources. DNR biologists and volunteer wolf trackers recently completed an estimation of the 2003-2004 overwinter wolf population. The estimate included 109 packs, or groups of two or more wolves, and at least 13 lone wolves. Twelve wolves were located on Indian Reservations. The total count outside of reservations was 361 to 398 wolves

“The growth of the wolf population has been a success story for wildlife management in Wisconsin,” Wydeven says, “but their growing numbers also require that we have a responsible management system that quickly addresses any problems caused by wolves.”

The Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources, approved removal of the gray wolf from the state list at its March meeting. The action is subject to review by legislative committees; if those committees concur, the wolf will be classified as a Protected Wild Animal. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) continues to list the wolf as a threatened species under federal law.

The new estimate is about an 11 percent increase from the winter 2002-2003 estimate of 235 to 353 wolves. Wydeven says this indicates that population growth has started to decline in the state. The wolf population had grown at an annual rate of 20 percent from 1985 through the early 2000s.

The wolf population survey encompasses a combination of tracking radio collared wolves, tracking wolves in the snow on foot or vehicle, and public reports of wolf observations. During the winter period, about radio-collared 45 wolves were followed by DNR pilots once per week to determine the extent of their territories and numbers of members in packs with at least one collared wolf. Wildlife biologists and technicians also drove, skied, and walked thousands of miles of snow-covered roads and trails searching for wolves in packs that were not radio collared, according to Wydeven.

Since 1995 about 100 volunteer trackers have covered a similar number of miles of snow covered roads, counting wolves and other predators. DNR and volunteer trackers cover most of the heavily forested areas of northern and central Wisconsin. Wydeven said he also relied extensively on public reports of wolf observations to supplement track surveys, and to focus surveys into new area where wolves are establishing their territories.

The USFWS upgraded the status of wolves in Wisconsin from endangered to threatened on April 1, 2003. This allowed staff from DNR and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services to trap and euthanize problem wolves. In 2003, 17 wolves were trapped and euthanized from five farms in northern Wisconsin. Wolf depredation on livestock and poultry was verified on 13 farms in Wisconsin in 2003.

The USFWS may start the process to remove wolves from the federal threatened species list later this year, and could complete the process in 2005. This action would return all wolf management to state officials. Wisconsin began the process of removing wolves from the state list in the fall of 2003, and the Wisconsin Natural Resource Board voted on March 24 2004, to remove wolves from the state threatened list and designate as Protected Wild Animal. Once both federal and state delisting are completed, the DNR will be better able to target management efforts on wolves that are causing problems.

The gray wolf (Canis lupus) was listed as a Federally Endangered Species in 1967 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and was again listed in 1974 under provisions of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. All gray wolves in the lower 48 states were considered Endangered by the U.S. Government.

Wisconsin listed the wolf as a state endangered species in 1975, as wolves began to recolonize the state after being extirpated for 15 or more years. A recovery plan for Wisconsin wolves was initiated in 1989. A state wolf management plan was initiated in 1999 that set the state delisting goal at 250, and long-term management goal at 350 wolves living outside of Indian Reservations. The current count of about 361 wolves outside of Indian reservations, indicates that wolves have achieved the management goal in the state.