Wisconsin hunters exceed wolf target by nearly 100 animals

Wisconsin hunters and trappers killed nearly double the number of wolves that the state allotted for a weeklong season, and they did it so quickly that officials ended the hunt after less than three days, according to figures released Thursday.

Nontribal hunters and trappers registered 216 wolves as of Thursday afternoon, blowing past the state’s kill target of 119. The state Department of Natural Resources estimated before the hunt that there were about 1,000 wolves in the state. Its population goal for the animal is 350.

The wolf season began Monday and was supposed to run through Sunday, but the DNR shut it down Wednesday afternoon as it became clear hunters would exceed the target. Hunters and trappers were given a 24-hour grace period, allowing them to remain in the field until Thursday afternoon. Hunters and trappers also exceeded their kill targets in the three previous wolf seasons but never by more than 10 animals.

"This is a deeply sad and shameful week for Wisconsin," Megan Nicholson, director of the Wisconsin chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement. "This week’s hunt proves that now, more than ever, gray wolves need federal protections restored to protect them from short-sighted and lethal state management."

DNR officials said nearly 90% of hunters used dogs to chase down wolves, and fresh snow on Monday and Tuesday aided in tracking. The state sold 1,547 permits, which equates to 13 hunters or trappers per wolf in the target number, the highest ratio of any wolf season so far.

DNR Wildlife Management Director Eric Lobner said during a news conference that the large number of hunters was difficult to manage but that staff were monitoring registrations hourly. Randy Johnson, the department’s carnivore biologist, said he was checking them every 15 minutes.

At the end of the day Monday, only nine animals had been registered. Lobner said when checked at 7 a.m. Tuesday, 48 animals were registered. The department announced the first management zone closures three hours later.

"It’s easy at this point in the game to say, yeah, maybe we should have closed it a little bit sooner," Lobner said. "There were so many unknowns about how the season was going to play out. ... How far we went over goal was not necessarily our objective."

Kill totals could climb higher. The DNR initially set a kill target of 200 animals but the state’s Ojibwe tribes claimed the right to 81, according to treaty rights. It was unclear whether tribal hunters and trappers would take any wolves; the Ojibwe regard the wolf as sacred and oppose hunting it.

Dylan Jennings, a spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which administers Ojibwe hunting rights, said he didn’t have any estimates of how many wolves tribal hunters and trappers may have taken, but he said they hadn’t met their quota and could continue to hunt and trap. He didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up email inquiring about how many permits have been issued to tribal hunters and trappers.

Lobner said DNR officials aren’t worried that the wolf population overall has been harmed, calling Wisconsin wolves "very robust." When department officials were planning the hunt, they decided that the population could sustain between 200 and 220 deaths and remain stable. Assuming the Ojibwe kill no wolves, the department came close to hitting that mark, he said.

Wolf management has been one of the most contentious outdoors issues Wisconsin has grappled with in the last 20 years. Farmers and rural residents complain wolves attack livestock and pets and insist that hunting is the only way to control the apex predators. Conservationists counter that the population is still too fragile to support hunting and the animals are too beautiful to be killed.

Then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed a law in 2012 that requires the DNR to hold an annual wolf season between November and February after the Obama administration removed the animals from the federal endangered species list. The DNR held a hunt that year and in 2013 and 2014, and the state’s kill targets were exceeded in each of those years.

The DNR stopped holding hunts after a federal judge restored protections for wolves in late 2014. But the Trump administration removed them from the endangered species list in January, returning management rights to the state and triggering the mandatory season in Wisconsin.

The DNR had been preparing to hold the wolf hunting season in November, but Republican legislators demanded it start before the end of February, saying they were afraid President Joe Biden would place wolves back on the endangered species list before November. The Humane Society of the United States has filed a lawsuit seeking to re-list wolves.

The DNR initially refused to start the hunt in February, but hunter advocacy group Hunter Nation won a court order this month forcing an immediate start to the season.

Plans are still underway for a November season. Lobner and Johnson said the department will have to digest the data from the hunt that just ended before considering possible kill targets for that season.

Lawmakers in neighboring Minnesota have introduced dueling bills that would ban wolf hunting or establish a season to hunt the animals. Wildlife officials in Colorado are trying to develop a plan for reintroducing the animal after it was hunted, trapped and poisoned to extinction there decades ago. Animal advocates have been urging the state to move quickly on reintroduction, but state officials say they want to move slowly.