Wolf Population Shows Slight Increase

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Wisconsin’s population of gray wolves increased only slightly in 2003 but is closing in on the state management goal of 350 animals outside of Indian reservations, state wildlife officials say.

The late winter population of wolves in Wisconsin, before the birth of pups in the spring, was estimated between 335 to 354, a slight increase from the adjusted wolf count of 327 estimated for 2002. Those estimates are based on factors including aerial surveys of packs with radio collared wolves, ground surveys of 3,000 miles of snow-covered trails and roads for wolf sign, trained volunteer surveys of 3,600 miles of trails and roads, and reports of wolf observations by the public or other government agency personnel.

“The 2003 count includes 94 packs in northern and central Wisconsin, and at least 12 lone wolves, but lone wolves are probably undercounted,” says Adrian Wydeven, Department of Natural Resources mammalian ecologist and wolf specialist. “Lone wolves are very mobile, and recently one was killed by a vehicle near Oconomowoc in Waukesha County. That was the third verified wolf in southern Wisconsin in recent years.”

Wolf packs, or family groups, are mostly restricted to the heavily forested areas of northern and west central Wisconsin. The most southern packs are a group of five in the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, Juneau County and a pair in the Colburn Swamp area of Adams County.

A wolf pack usually consists of two to 10 animals: a dominant male and female -- the breeding pair -- pups from the previous year and the current year's pups. Additional subordinate adults may join the pack upon occasion. A pack's territory may cover 20-120 square miles, about one-tenth the size of an average Wisconsin county.

The state Natural Resources Board in 1989 approved a Wolf Recovery Plan that determined wolves should be reclassified to threatened when the population remained at 80 for three or more years. In 1999 the board approved a Wolf Management Plan that calls for maintaining a long-term population of 350 animals outside of Indian reservations, largely through protecting the wolf in some areas, public education, and controlling problem wolves on private lands. The 350 goal was thought to be the number of wolves Wisconsin’s available habitat could support and public tolerance would accept.

The state and federal governments now list the gray wolf as a threatened species in Wisconsin. The state reclassified wolves from endangered to threatened in October 1999, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the federal change effective April 1, 2003. The federal change gave state biologists more flexibility to deal with problem wolves, including allowing government agents to destroy wolves that kill domestic animals.

The state has exercised that flexibility recently in responding to depredation on livestock at three of four farms in northern Wisconsin that have previously suffered livestock losses from wolves. Since late April, Wydeven says, wolves have killed five calves on three farms, and four sheep on a fourth farm. U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services staff set live traps for wolves on three of the farms and subsequently trapped three wolves on a farm in Burnett County and one on a farm in Barron County. All four wolves were euthanized by DNR wardens.

The Burnett County farm has suffered wolf damage most years since 1995, with eight wolves trapped and removed from the farm in 2001 and nine in 2002. All farmers have received payments in the past for all verified depredation and some missing calves.

Before the federal government’s reclassified of wolves to threatened status, most captured wolves were relocated to other areas of the state.

“With the change in federal status, we will no longer be relocating problem wolves under most circumstances for several reasons,” Wydeven says. “Most suitable wolf range is currently occupied, and few areas exist for releasing problem wolves. If problem wolves are released into areas occupied by other wolves, the released wolves run the risk of being killed by the local pack. Further, with most suitable areas of habitat occupied, problem wolves are more likely to move into other areas where they will cause additional depredation.”

“We will continue to explore non-lethal methods for controlling problem wolves,” Wydeven says. “Scare devices, cleaning up of farm animals carcasses, changing calving areas, using guard animals, and other non-lethal methods are all considered where feasible. Trapping and euthanizing wolves only occurs after at least two incidents of verified wolf depredation, or on farms that have had chronic wolf depredation in previous years.”

Under Wisconsin’s wolf management plan, the population goal for removing wolves from the threatened species is 250 wolves outside of Indian Reservations for at least one year. In 2002 at least 314 wolves occurred outside of Indian reservations, and 327 occurred outside reservation in 2003, so Wydeven says the state process to delist wolves from the threatened species list will occur soon. The process could be completed by spring 2004. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to start the federal delisting process in late 2003 or early 2004, and complete the process late in 2004 or early 2005.

Once removed from the list, wolves would continue to be protected as nongame species, and would continue to receive high levels of protection and the goal will be to maintain a wolf population of about 350 wolves outside of Indian reservations in Wisconsin.