Fall wolf quota set too low?

Milwaukee — The Natural Resources Board has agreed with the DNR and set the state’s wolf quota for the 2014 season at 156 wolves, down from 257 wolves last year.

The DNR recommended the lower quota for this year based on an 18-percent reduction in the state’s minimum wolf count from this past winter.

The board approved the quota after hearing testimony from 26 citizens June 28.

The board also asked the DNR to return in September with a plan to voluntarily obtain inspections of wolves killed when hunters use dogs to hunt wolves.

This will be the state’s third wolf season following delisting.

Last year, the board approved a quota of 275 wolves, but that was reduced to 251 when tribes notified the DNR of their intent to use their full quota.

David MacFarland, DNR large carnivore specialist, countered comments from citizens who claimed the DNR did not have adequate information on wolves.

“We can stand behind the data and defend it well,” MacFarland said. “It is second to none in the United States.”

The DNR season proposal is the result of recommendations from the DNR Wolf Advisory Committee. This committee includes DNR staff, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission reps, agency partners, the Conservation Congress, and stakeholder groups.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said some people believe the makeup of the committee does not represent all of the public. She said that is not the purpose of the committee.

“We now have a state law that says you now will implement a wolf hunt, and to move that practice forward we needed people who would be partners in that effort,” Stepp said.

She said the DNR doesn’t want people, such as some who were on an earlier wolf committee, to tell the DNR not to hunt wolves.

“It would not be a productive way to run a committee. (We needed people) who would work with the DNR in partnership,” she said.

NRB member Terry Hilgenberg asked about whether the elk herd could be in jeopardy due to wolves.

MacFarland said it should be up to the DNR Elk Committee to make recommendations to the wolf committee about changes needed in wolf management that would help the elk herd grow.

He expects elk committee recommendations this summer, and then the new wolf plan will be revised and brought to the NRB in February for approval.

A complicating factor is that the elk area overlaps with the pine marten reintroduction area, where trapping is not allowed. Trapping is the most efficient method to harvest wolves.

MacFarland said 2013-14 wolf mortality of 362 included 257 wolves by harvest; 65 via depredation control; 21 by vehicles; 11 illegal kills; six via unknown causes; and two from natural mortality.

The 2014 minimum count was 660 to 689 wolves in 197 packs. This is down from the 809 to 834 wolves counted in 214 packs in 2013. MacFarland acknowledged that a drop in volunteer trackers, deep snow, and cold weather could have contributed to a lower count.

“The wolf population monitoring remains the scientific foundation for our management decisions,” he said. “It indicates that the management actions we’ve taken to date are beginning to reduce the wolf population toward the goals established in the … plan.”

This is making progress in reducing conflicts between wolves and farmers, he said. In 2013, 28 farms experienced verified wolf losses, a reduction of 30 percent from 2011.

Citizen comments

Nine of 26 citizens who addressed the board appeared via a live link from the DNR office in Rhinelander.

Among some of the comments against the quota were:

• Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, said the harvest could put wolves back on the endangered species list. He said that from his experience growing up on a farm, farmers with depredation problems are not managing their farms and herds properly.
NRB member Bill Bruins, a farmer from Waupun, said Hulsey’s comments insulted cattle ranchers in Wisconsin.

• Rachel Tilseth, representing Wolves of Douglas County, said it was better to manage wolves by non-lethal means, and that it is barbaric to allow hunters to use dogs to hunt wolves.

• Bob Boucher, of River Hills, said he was a hunter and the land determines its carrying capacity. He said deer herds and land are healthier with wolves, and killing them reduces the stability of the ecosystem.

• Norm Poulton, Tomahawk, said 25 percent of all wolves are lost every year, and seven of nine people on the wolf committee are “anti-wolf.”

• Jodi Habush Sinykin, of Midwest Environmental Advocates, asked where the science was behind the quota. She blamed fringe and out-of-state hunting lobbyists, saying the DNR is on an extremist path.
At one point, several board members began to disagree with speakers. NRB member Christine Thomas reminded board members that they traditionally don’t engage in arguing with the public. It could prevent citizens from coming forward.
“We also need to remember that there is a state law that mandates a wolf season. That is not at issue. What is at issue here is how many and where. That is what the board must decide,” Thomas said.
Commenting in support of the wolf hunt were:

• Ron Heikkinen, of Brantwood, said he is a logger and sees wolves regularly. He needs to carry a pistol when in the woods, and his dogs refuse to go in the woods due to wolves.

• Mike Brust, of the Wisconsin  Bowhunters Association, said he believes the wolf quota should be higher in order to move toward the goal of 350. He suggested the DNR distribute the quota for Zone 6 to the other five zones, then allow an unlimited quota in Zone 6 where wolves are not wanted.

• Bob Welch, of the Hunters Rights Coalition, said the DNR’s job is to manage wildlife and has to move the population closer to the goal of 350. He said he does not hate wolves. He objected to people from southern Wisconsin saying that people in northern Wisconsin have to accept living with wolves.

• Ralph Fritsch, of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said the quota was too low and will have no significant effect in moving closer to goal.
“The quota was derived by averaging the preferred harvest level of the 20 members of the committee. That is far from a scientific approach,” Fritsch said. He wanted a quota of 250 wolves.

• Mike Gappa, of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, compared current wolf counts to bear population estimates several years ago when the DNR eventually found the bear population was nearly double the estimated number. He said more accurate numbers are needed. He said wolves are over goal; a higher harvest is needed.

• Rob Bohmann, Conservation Congress chairman, said wolf recovery is a success story, but a quota of 156 is too low. He wanted a quota of 200 wolves.
Board discussion

Thomas asked MacFarland about the characterization that the quota was merely an average of numbers submitted by committee members, some of whom asked for a zero quota.

MacFarland denied it, saying that the quota is a combination of science and the interpretation of science and desired outcomes.

He added that committees involving other species often are pretty similar in their sentiments, but this committee has a wide gap of different opinions of how to achieve the goals.

“We asked committee members to provide us with their recommended quota and a range of numbers,” he said. “It was not possible to have a true consensus. We had to incorporate that diversity into a recommendation.”

In answering questions from Hilgenberg, MacFarland said the DNR does take into account wolves killed by vehicles and poaching; the quota of 156 would be 24 percent of the late-winter off-reservation mid-point; state law regulates the use of dogs to hunt wolves; and one objective of the program is to reduce the population to a goal.

Bruins asked MacFarland to defend the winter count. MacFarland said it is always contentious, and no different than deer number estimates.

The monitoring system uses a standard method that has been reviewed by many people as the most reliable method to measure wolf populations, he said.

MacFarland added that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviews DNR data each year and has not found fault with population-monitoring efforts.

“People argue for perfection, but if we require perfection we’ll fall short,” MacFarland said. “The real question is whether the information is adequate for management decisions. We can clearly say that it is.”

NRB member Greg Kazmierski asked about whether there are tracking efforts in Zone 6. MacFarland said there is in some areas of that zone.

He said the wolf committee is made up of 10 DNR biologists, including MacFarland, plus representatives of the USFWS, Forest Service, USDA Wildlife Services, county forests, GLFWIC, Conservation Congress, Timber Wolf Alliance, WBH, WBHA, WWF, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, and Safari Club International.

MacFarland said the quota was based on scientific data provided to committee members.

“The quota is not the committee’s recommendation but the DNR recommendation. We had several weeks to evaluate the recommendation and determine the likely impacts and uncertainty,” he said.

The DNR is working on a new wolf plan that should provide more clarity in 2015, he said.

Bruins wanted to know if the public will be able to weigh in on the population goal under the new plan. MacFarland said that it will include thoughts of Wisconsin residents, as the DNR Bureau of Science Services sent a questionnaire to 8,750 Wisconsin residents asking them what they want to see in the way of wolves and what actions are appropriate or inappropriate.

Plus, there will be an extensive public input process across the state, followed by public comment before the NRB.

MacFarland said that with any management action there is uncertainty. The wolf population is healthy, but includes far fewer animals than deer or bears.

Kazmierski asked if the quota could go up to 200, as recommended by the Conservation Congress. MacFarland said they’d need more time to study that.

Hilgenberg moved approval of the quota. The board voted 6-1, with Kazmierski voting no.

Dog resolution

Thomas said last year’s season, allowing the use of dogs, was one of the most contentious, as people thought dogs, wolves, or both would be injured.

The board asked the DNR to gather information last season so the board would know for sure that dog-wolf interactions were not happening. No evidence of wolf-dog fights were found and no hunters were cited, but MacFarland said the plan did not provide definitive results.

Kurt Thiede, DNR land administrator, said the DNR assessed all the carcasses to determine how the wolves were killed, but did not get guaranteed results about dog interaction.

Thomas asked that the DNR come to the board in September with a plan for wolf hunters to voluntarily allow biologists to check wolves harvested while using dogs. The motion was adopted.

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