In every state where we’re working to protect wolves from trophy hunters and trappers, the political nature of the fight is obvious. But the tragic impacts of political gamesmanship involving wolves are especially evident in the controversy surrounding Wisconsin Natural Resources Board chair Frederick Prehn’s refusal to vacate his board seat after the expiration of his term on May 1. Wisconsin’s February 2021 wolf hunt was the second-deadliest in the state’s history, with at least 218 wolves killed in less than three days, nearly double the quota allotment. Prehn has admitted that his refusal to step down was partly rooted in his desire to influence the fall wolf hunting season. And sure enough, just a week ago, the NRB approved an extreme and unsupportable fall wolf hunt quota of 300 wolves, overriding the advice of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources staff members and independent experts who warned that killing even half that many wolves would likely produce irreversible damage to their population.
Yesterday, just a few weeks after we and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a complaint with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, his office filed suit to remove the recalcitrant Prehn. Gov. Tony Evers has already appointed Prehn’s replacement, but the Senate has delayed her confirmation vote along with other appointments advanced by Evers. Prehn’s squatting has allowed a slim majority of board members appointed by Evers’ predecessor, Gov. Scott Walker, to maintain control of the board and impose a harsh anti-wolf agenda. Prehn erroneously argues that a 1964 state Supreme Court case gives him the authority to stay in his seat until a successor is confirmed by the Senate, but our complaint and the attorney general’s lawsuit refute that claim.
There is a lot at stake here. Wisconsin’s wolf management plan, drafted in 1999 and last updated in 2007, is based on flawed assumptions and outdated science that has since been widely discredited. In January 2021, the Trump administration removed federal protections for gray wolves across the country, including in Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, a misguided court opinion forced through a rushed and devastating February hunt that put pregnant wolves in the crosshairs. Even the DNR does not know the impact that awful season had on the population—the first hunt ever to occur during breeding season in the state.
Advocates for the upcoming fall hunt have argued for irresponsibly high quotas, leading some state officials to worry that the high toll of a second hunt this year might trigger review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency and a possible relisting of the wolf under the Endangered Species Act. And Wisconsin’s Ojibwe tribes, who are entitled to as much as half of the state’s wolf quota under their treaty rights, have declined to hunt them as a matter of traditional regard for the wolf (ma’iingan in Ojibwe) and serious concern about Wisconsin’s systemic mismanagement of the species.
As far as Mr. Prehn’s position goes, we’re confident that there is no legal basis on which he can continue to serve on the seven-member board, which is responsible for setting wildlife, environmental and public lands policy in Wisconsin. If the court agrees with us, the judge will likely either order him to vacate his seat or give the governor explicit approval to do so.
In the meantime, Prehn has made a circus of a body charged with making some of the state’s most important wildlife management decisions. The tension bubbled over at last week’s meeting, and DNR representatives were notably outraged, having witnessed Prehn spearhead the rejection of its advice and a more than doubling of its recommended quota of 130. After a back and forth on the quota number for the wolf hunt, the board voted for 300, and DNR Secretary Preston Cole let his displeasure be known. “Now you now know why he’s sitting in this chair,” the DNR secretary said, noting that the vote might well have gone a different way if Prehn’s appointed successor had been in his seat. Prehn objected to Cole’s comments as being out of order, to which Cole rebutted, “I’m out of order? I’m out of order? You’re sitting in somebody else’s chair.”
The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board is a public body entrusted with managing the state’s wildlife in trust for all Wisconsin citizens, and it should be above such brazen and cynical politics. It’s more than a matter of good governance and the rule of law, however, as important as those principles are. Here, hundreds of animals’ lives are in the balance, and it’s outrageous that someone who shouldn’t even be in the room is there putting his thumb on the scale.