Who’s Afraid of Wisconsin Wolves?

This episode about Wisconsin wolves is the second piece in the series Ground Truths: Stories from Wisconsin’s Frontlines of Environmental Action. This six-episode podcast series highlights environmental justice issues across the diverse communities and landscapes of Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to the Northwoods. The series is supported in part by a grant from Wisconsin Humanities, with funds from the National Endowment for the HumanitiesSeries editors: Carly Griffith (lead), Clare Sullivan (lead), Ben Iuliano, Justyn Huckleberry, Marisa Lanker, and Juniper Lewis.

Map of Wisconsin with northern counties shaded in green and coral.
Wisconsin state map. Current wolf range is shown in dark green and the Ojibwe Ceded Territories are shown with cross-hatching. Map design by Carly Griffith, based on data from USFWS and GLIFWC.

In this episode, we speak with people across Wisconsin about wolves.

Wisconsin, like many states, has permitted the hunting of wolves when the species is not listed on the Endangered Species Act. The state’s February 2021 wolf hunt brought to a head disagreements between tribal governments, the federal government, state governments, natural resource management agencies, hunters, and conservation organizations, with each advocating for different approaches to wolf stewardship. Wisconsin has become a flashpoint for this issue. 

When we started interviewing people we wanted to know: Why is wolf management such a controversial issue in Wisconsin?

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Clare Sullivan: What led up to this hunt?

Marisa Lanker: Adrian Wydeven, a former Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wolf biologist, current member of Wisconsin Green Fire and Timberwolf Alliance, and a resident of Cable, Wisconsin, describes the historical and legislative context that dictate a hunt.

Adrian Wydeven: The 2021 wolf hunt was an interesting ordeal. Wisconsin did have wolf hunts in 2012, 2013, and 2014, the previous times that wolves had been delisted. At the end of 2014, wolves were again relisted, so no hunts were possible again until 2021, when wolves were again delisted. Regulations established by the legislature in 2012 remained in place, and part of those regulations authorized the department to hold a wolf hunting season from mid-October, early November until the end of February. When wolves were delisted in January of 2021, a group called Hunter Nation sued the DNR for not holding a wolf hunt immediately. The Department lost and was forced to hold a wolf hunting season. The DNR indicated a potential quota of 200 wolves, but the tribes can request up to half of allowable harvest quotas. So the actual state quota was reduced to 119 wolves. The Department had recommended that for every wolf to be harvested, there would be ten permits issued. The Natural Resources Board instead decided to double that. Earlier hunts were done in the fall, whereas this one would be held in winter, right at the middle of the breeding period. So potential harvest was going to have much more of an impact on the population. Instead of harvesting 119 wolves, 218 were harvested in three days, nearly 90 percent overharvest of the wolf quota.

Billboard reading "Relist Wolves" with an image of a wolf against a blue sky.
Billboard in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Photo by Project Coyote, 2022.

Clare Sullivan: We spoke with Arnold Groehler, president of Wisconsin Trappers Association, to understand what else contributed to the high harvest numbers.

Arnold Groehler: There was very little notice because it looked like there would not be a season and then there was a court order that the season had to begin. Successful applicants had to scramble to get ready. It was in February, so the conditions were perfect for hunters with dogs because they had fresh snow every morning. They could identify wolf tracks and put the dogs on the trail. As a result, they harvested a greater number of wolves. We knew there were a lot more wolves out there than the DNR or other people supposedly counting them were reporting. We had not had a wolf season in several years, so everybody saw this as their opportunity. 

There are a lot of positions about wolves in Wisconsin. No one is always going to be completely happy.

Marisa Lanker: While many wolf hunters were happy to have a season again, many other people were upset about the legislative mandate that forced the DNR to hold the hunt, and the rushed process and overharvest that resulted. We spoke with Peter David of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), which represents eleven Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Peter David: The whole design of that season assured that the harvest was going to come disproportionately from large blocks of public land, which is exactly the place almost everybody agrees is best to have wolves. It had no impact on places that were suffering agricultural depredations, for example. So there’s a great deal that went wrong but which we can learn from. I hope that we’re wise enough to do that.

Marisa Lanker: On February 10, 2022, we learned of a major decision regarding one of the many lawsuits challenging current wolf management. Mary Rock, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law organization representing Wisconsin tribes in a legal case about wolves, explains what happened.

Mary Rock: There was a challenge to the Trump administration’s delisting of wolves. The federal court basically restored Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in most of the United States. Here in Wisconsin, the wolf hunt cannot go forward as long as there are Endangered Species Act protections for wolves. We’re watching to see how that will affect the state’s management in Wisconsin.

Overhead angle of two wolves running through deep snow in an area lightly forested by bare trees.
Wolves running through deep snow. Aerial photo by Voyageurs Wolf Project, 2019.

Clare Sullivan: Federal protection of gray wolves in Wisconsin raised questions about whether the federal government or state government should be responsible for Wisconsin’s wolf population. We spoke with Brady Zuck of Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association.

Brady Zuck: It’s Wisconsin’s wolf population, and I think management needs to be at a state level. It’s unfortunate that the federal ruling by a judge in California, of all places, impacts us here in Wisconsin. I find it very frustrating. We have folks that are involved, know the population, know the issues, and those are the folks best equipped to make those management decisions here in our state. When the wolf population was under state management previously, it did give a livestock producer the right to use lethal control if an animal was directly being attacked on their farm. That option is no longer available to our producers, which is very concerning.

Marisa Lanker: In Wisconsin, some of the strongest voices advocating for wolf conservation are the Ojibwe tribes. What is unique about the relationship between the Ojibwe and wolves relative to the rest of the state’s communities?

Peter David: The Ojibwe’s relationship with Ma’iingan, or wolf, is a rich and complex relationship, and I certainly can’t capture all of it. There is a real cultural relationship that goes all the way back to the Ojibwe creation story. Part of the teaching of that story is that Ma’iingan and the Ojibwe have a relationship often described as being like brothers, or even being one and the same. The Ma’iingan needed to be a teacher to show people how to survive on this harsh landscape, how to hunt, how to raise your family and extended family groups. It also gave responsibilities to the Ojibwe to treat wolves with respect, to think of their best interests, and to accept the gifts that Ma’iingan provides humbly and with appreciation. The fate of the people and Ma’iingan are intertwined, and what will happen to one will happen to the other. It really means that you want for wolves the same things you want for your own community.

Wolves ran out of the big expanses of nonhuman occupation areas. They had no choice but to start living in community with humans.

Mary Rock: The tribes also have treaty rights, and that really distinguishes the tribes’ relationship with wolves. In the treaties of 1837 and 1842, the Ojibwe tribes ceded lands to the United States and retained rights for hunting, fishing, and gathering across those ceded territories. The tribes also retained the rights to conserve and protect species and resources that were part of their livelihoods. The area across which these treaties are in effect includes much of northern Wisconsin. Wolves are mostly in the northern area and mostly in the ceded territory. Federal courts have recognized several principles that are important to keep in mind today as the state and the tribes try to figure out species management. The first principle is that all of the harvestable resources within the ceded territory, with limited exceptions, are to be apportioned equally between the Ojibwe and non-Indians. This means that, in the case of wolves, the tribes would manage their share and the state of Wisconsin would separately manage its share. 

Clare Sullivan: In coordinating a wolf hunt, can the statewide wolf management plan balance treaty rights with the state management objectives? Or are they fundamentally at odds?

Peter David: First of all, treaty rights are not something that you balance, like you do the interests of your particular stakeholder groups. The treaties are the highest law of the land, something that must be legally complied with. The other thing I would say is that there are a lot of positions about wolves in Wisconsin. No one is always going to be completely happy. There’s opportunity for some common ground. Ecological functionality, I would hope, would be a high priority for the state as well as for the tribes. If you can reach agreement on some of those large goals, then other parts of the puzzle fall in to support that.

Marisa Lanker: In 1978, gray wolves naturally dispersed from wolf packs in the Northern Great Lakes and began to recolonize their former range. They have been successful in recolonizing, with populations reaching around one thousand wolves.

Clare Sullivan: You’ll hear about some of the benefits and challenges of having wolves back in Wisconsin’s landscapes. Francisco Santiago-Ávila is a science and conservation manager for Project Coyote. Laurie Groskopf is a northern Wisconsin resident and one of the Wisconsin Farmers Union‘s representatives on the DNR’s Wolf Management Plan Committee.

Francisco Santiago-Ávila: Carnivores affect the distribution of their prey. This allows for changes on the landscape that are generally viewed as healthier for the ecosystem as a whole. In addition, there is ongoing and very recent research that’s provided evidence that this redistribution of prey on the landscape allows for wild ungulates to not be on roads as much. Therefore, you get fewer vehicle collisions, which means less harm to humans, less expenditures.

Adrian Wydeven: We’ve had a few studies in Wisconsin looking at understory vegetation in places where there are wolf packs. We see that the interior wolfpack areas have a greater diversity of wildflowers, less browsing on rare plants than in areas where there aren’t wolf packs or the edge of wolf pack areas. You’ve got a healthier growing forest in areas where wolves are present. There is also greater abundance of snowshoe hare in wolfpack areas because wolves are suppressing the local coyote population. Chronic wasting disease, a serious deer disease occurring across much of southern Wisconsin and gradually spreading across the state, is very minimal to mostly non-existent in places where we have healthy wolf populations. There’s a broad range of ecological benefits, and I’m sure there are other impacts we haven’t even begun to detect yet.

Three people in the woods observe wolf tracks in the snow
Wolf Tracking Immersion participants at Teaching Drum Outdoor School admire fresh wolf tracks in a thin layer of snow in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Photo by Alexandra Steussy-Williams, 2022.

Laurie Groskopf: Conflicts we have in Wisconsin are based on the fact that we have one of the highest human density populations in wolf territory of any state in the wolf recovery areas—far higher than Minnesota, Michigan, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. So wolves ran out of the most appropriate areas for them to live, the big expanses of nonhuman occupation areas. They had no choice but to start living in pretty close community with humans. Not that they’re bad animals, but wolves do take the easiest course of action in obtaining food, and that’s not always wild game. It can be somebody’s pet dog, or, especially in calving season, we have a tremendous problem in Wisconsin with wolves going after the cows because they’re the easiest thing to take. I know people personally who have had conflicts with wolves. Not one of these people say there shouldn’t be wolves in Wisconsin, but they do feel that the population has gotten out of control. As familiarity with wolves gets more intense, human appreciation for the species really drops considerably.

Clare Sullivan: What kinds of stories do you hear from ranchers about interactions with wolves?

Brady Zuck: Folks often hear about the depredation, and that is in itself devastating for a producer, to lose livestock to a wolf depredation. But unfortunately, there are a lot of additional issues that arise when there’s a wolf attack. Cattle are herd-based animals. So when there are wolves in the area, that cow herd is very nervous. They can sense predators around. They may exhibit behavior like not grazing normally. Instead of being out in a pasture grazing, the cattle tend to stay bunched up. When the farmer goes out to check on the cattle, the cattle are very spooked and flighty, wanting to run away. There are producers that say that the cattle get so spooked, they actually blow through a fence. There are a lot of secondary effects that are very damaging to a beef cow herd.

Clare Sullivan: Different interests and cultural perspectives came up in many of our conversations. Marisa spent some time with Matt Nelson, an outdoor educator and expert wildlife tracker in northern Wisconsin.

Person stands near partial deer carcass in snowy woods
Matt Nelson stands over the remains of a deer hunted down by wolves, a site he found by reading the story wolf tracks left in the snow. Photo by Alexandra Steussy-Williams, 2022.

Marisa Lanker: How are wolves often misunderstood or misrepresented?

Matt Nelson: If you think of my ancestors in Northern Europe, where fairy tales like the Big Bad Wolf or Red Riding Hood come from, these are fear-based stories that reflect a prejudice based on what was happening in those days. In those days, for instance in England, we cut down the forest, so wolves had marginal territory to live in. We replaced the game with sheep or cows. Now we were trying to protect our livelihood from the wolves. People started to see wolves as not only a threat to their livelihood and livestock but to themselves. The reality is they’re not a threat to people. Then we carry that over here to America. The Native people here, they’re still living in balance with the environment and saw and still see wolves as their brother, their kin. Whereas we settlers show up with this “dominate the landscape,” “change the landscape” mindset. Wolves are not these bloodthirsty killers. They’re misrepresented in our own cultural stories. 

Francisco Santiago-Ávila: In Euro–North American management, from the early 1900s, the wise use framework of conservation ended up ruling the day over a preservationist approach that actually valued nonhuman life. In this type of management, there is emphasis on dominating values toward nature. But these are beings that share in our experiences of being vulnerable, of being mortal, of being related to others beings. Implicitly and explicitly, the framework of traditional conservation that is used widely by U.S. federal and state agencies has this hierarchical thinking tied to worldviews that place a higher value on some qualities above others.

Laurie Groskopf: I wonder what the wolves would like to see.

Featured image: A wolf walking through a snowy wooded area toward the trail camera. Photo by Adrian Wydeven, 2021.

Podcast music: “Weatherman” by Wolf Man Summit. Used with permission.

Adrian Wydeven is a retired wildlife biologist and current member of Wisconsin’s Green Fire and Timber Wolf Alliance.

Arnold Groehler is president of the Wisconsin Trappers Association.

Peter David is a wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC).

Mary Rock is an attorney with Earthjustice.

Brady Zuck is president of the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association.

Francisco Santiago-Ávila is a science and conservation manager for Project Coyote and the Rewilding Institute and the co-founder of PAN Works.

Matt Nelson is an outdoor educator at Teaching Drum Outdoor School and is a senior tracker and evaluator for CyberTracker North America.

Laurie Groskopf is one of the Wisconsin Farmers Union‘s representatives on the DNR’s Wolf Management Plan Committee.

We invite all of our readers and listeners (you!) to reflect on this topic and respond to the following questions:

Let us know what you think! We look forward to reading your response (50-500 words).