By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
In February, 1,500 trophy hunters took to the frigid woods of Wisconsin, armed with guns, traps, neck snares and packs of hounds, in what would be Wisconsin’s first wolf hunt in seven years. The destruction and killing they perpetrated over the next 60 hours revealed the crass hypocrisy of wildlife management agencies and the dangers facing wolves in America.
A whopping 2,380 wolf hunting permits—twice as many as are typically issued for hunts in the state—were made available for a quota of 119 wolves in what was supposed to be a week-long season. Less than three days later, more than 200 wolves had been killed, entire wolf families were decimated, and the hunting season had to be shut down early, having gone nearly 100 wolves over the quota.
Each wolf lost in this killing spree had represented hope for wolf conservation in America—and that hope was shattered. Little if any input was sought from Wisconsinites, tribal nations or the scientific community. We led a strong campaign to try to stop the February wolf hunt, sending a letter to the Wisconsin governor, state lawmakers and Department of Natural Resources officials, emphasizing that the hunt would have disastrous consequences for the wolves; unfortunately a court decision forced the hunt to continue. We still believe that the wrongs of this hunt deserve closer inspection, which is why we’ve just published “A call to end wolf trophy hunting in Wisconsin,” in an effort to prevent a repetition of this reckless hunt in November 2021.
One of the deadliest hunts in local memory
We now know that Wisconsin’s February hunt was the second deadliest wolf hunt in Wisconsin’s recorded history, with 218 wolves recorded dead. The best available science indicates that poachers may have killed at least an additional 100 more since wolves were delisted. We also know that nearly half the wolves killed were females. Because it was breeding season, many of them may have been pregnant. More than 85% of the wolves killed were hunted down by packs of dogs—an extremely cruel practice that no other Midwestern state allows for wolf hunting. Hunt participants also used unfair killing equipment such as night vision devices, snowmobiles, traps and snares.
Our report emphasizes that even more wolves died than the state calculated—largely because it failed to account for the tremendous numbers likely killed by poachers. Because of time constraints, hunters could self-report, or report to a local game warden (and not a biologist), the wolves they killed. The state did not require hunters to turn in the dead wolves for analysis, which would have allowed the state to verify the age of the wolf and whether a female was pregnant at the time of her death, among other information. Only 22 of the 218 were voluntarily turned in, and only because the tribal nations had requested to conduct their own research. As a result, the state failed to account for what was likely a substantial loss to the breeding population and for the for the offspring of pregnant wolves who were killed.
We believe that Wisconsin has lost about one-third of its wolf population since they were delisted from federal Endangered Species Act protections in November 2020. These wolves are largely counted using their tracks in snow, which will make it impossible to count the wolf population before the next proposed wolf trophy hunt in November. If that hunt occurs, the future survival of this population of wolves will be in jeopardy.
We conducted a poll of Wisconsin residents, cutting across demographics and including farmers, hunters, all party affiliations, genders and jurisdictions, and found that 68% of respondents think that the November wolf hunt is a bad idea. Some 62% opposed the trophy hunting and trapping of wolves. The majority of respondents believed the February 2021 hunt was “mismanaged” and “reckless” and that the methods to hunt wolves in Wisconsin are cruel and unfair, and 68% stated they are convinced that wolves are sentient, evolved, familial beings who drive ecological processes while keeping their prey herds healthier. And most respondents—even most Wisconsin farmers—did not feel that wolves pose a serious threat to livestock.
This is why we are calling upon Wisconsin officials to stop the proposed November wolf hunt and adopt a hunting quota of zero wolves. And we’re urging the federal government to relist Wisconsin’s wolves under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The fight to reinstate wolf protections
The struggle to save gray wolves spans decades. Nearly eradicated from their native U.S. habitats at the beginning of the 20th century, gray wolves are still absent from about 70% of currently suitable habitat in the lower 48 states. Yet in recent years legislators and wildlife agencies have systematically continued to roll back wolf protections. The carnage of the Wisconsin hunt showed what can happen when wolves are stripped of those protections.
But there are stories that bring hope to the fight for wolves. For the first time in 80 years, wolf pups were born in Colorado. The pups’ parents had immigrated into Colorado themselves, and unlike other immigrants before them, were not shot or poisoned before having the opportunity to breed. In 2020, Colorado residents showed support for wolves in their state by passing a ballot measure mandating the restoration of wolves on public lands in the western region of the state by 2023. The best way to protect the future of this wolf family would be to relist gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act.
Earlier this month, the Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund joined other organizations in petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to relist wolves living in Idaho and Montana after legislators in those states passed a slew of draconian bills designed to drive wolf populations to their breaking points. Today, more than 50 regional and national conservation groups have signed onto a letter of support for that petition.
You can join us in our mission to save wolves: Tell the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reinstate federal protections for gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.