Spring 2009

Cover Story

Inside gray wolves' stunning comeback - and uncertain future

EVEN BEFORE WE SEE THE WOLF, WE SMELL IT – a powerful, feral odor like wet dog and wild places. The scent is stronger than usual, muskier. It’s also a little off.

A wolf’s sensitive nose would quickly identify that taint of blood and death, but wolves don’t generally arrive at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Science Operations Center in working order. This one lies lifeless on its left side atop a stainless steel table, nose toward a blue surgical cart stacked with supplies for cutting and sampling. It is one of five wolves believed to have been shot around the 2008 gun deer season-a federal offense, given that at the time the gray wolf was listed as an endangered species.

A pack of gray wolves pauses in a forest clearing in northwestern Wisconsin as a DNR plane spies from above.

Veterinary specialist Julie Langenberg begins her forensic investigation with probing fingers, working the animal thoroughly from tooth to tail. The eyes and tongue are deformed from the animal’s stint in a DNR evidence freezer, but apart from this and the red gash on its belly, the wolf looks healthy. Long legs below powerful haunches. Thick, mottled coat. Supple, alert ears, one scarred from an old tussle.

It’s clear the wolf has been shot, but due diligence is Langenberg’s job. She turns the wolf over to reveal another, smaller wound near the muscular front left shoulder. This is probably where the bullet entered, and the incision begins here. A cut down the leg reveals an angry stain of internal bleeding.

Langenberg’s scalpel follows the line of fire through bone, tendon and muscle, finally revealing a deep pool of blood within the chest cavity. Her fingers strain the viscera until she finds what remains of the heart. The left chambers are intact, but the right side has been shredded by the bullet. Death came quickly-the wolf would have staggered only a few steps before lying down and bleeding out.

It was a perfect shot, leaving little doubt it was fired with deliberate and lethal intent. Whether the shooter knew he was taking down a wolf is the question. People often mistake wolves for other animals, especially in places where they’re not expecting them. And 20 years ago, nobody expected this many wolves in Wisconsin.

As Langenberg works, Adrian Treves watches with careful attention. An assistant professor of environmental studies at UW-Madison, Treves is co-investigator of the Living With Wolves project, a research effort to understand wolves and the controversies that surround them. Treves spends a lot of time trying to figure out why and where wolves kill calves and hunting dogs, but he also studies people and their attitudes toward wolves-why, for example, someone would take the legal risk of shooting one. Whoever shot this wolf faces a $2,000 fine and a three-year loss of hunting privileges. Yet of the hunters he and his colleagues have surveyed, 10 percent say they would take the shot if they saw a wolf while hunting.

That sentiment was ratified last spring when the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, an advisory board to the DNR, voted 4,848 to 772 in favor of hunting gray wolves in Wisconsin. Although many steps would have to be taken before the state would approve a wolf hunt-and animal-welfare and conservation groups are already considering their responses-the vote is one of several signs that wolves are losing the protected status they have enjoyed for the past quarter century. The wolf was removed from the federal endangered species list once already in March 2007, and it may be de-listed again soon. Depending on who you ask it is a sign of their remarkable recovery or the beginning of their doom.

For Treves and the handful of other scientists who research wolves, these shifting attitudes raise a host of new questions: Can Wisconsin’s wolf population withstand a hunt? Would a hunt actually help protect it? And how do we even discuss the option, given the heated opinions surrounding the topic? How Wisconsin deals with these issues-and the decisions that flow from that discussion-could profoundly rewrite one of the greatest environmental comeback stories of all time.

Survival Story

For thousands of years, native people and wolves lived together throughout the Upper Midwest. Wolves were an important part of the Ojibway creation stories, regarded as early kin to humans. But many European settlers brought with them an antipathy reflected in fairy tales-a deeply rooted memory of the big, bad wolf. They often demonized wolves, and between hunting and habitat destruction, the animals’ numbers declined. In Wisconsin, they disappeared entirely: the last known native wolf died after being hit by a car in 1958.

The environmental awakening that began in the 1960s relaxed attitudes against the wolf, and, under the protective shield of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, packs began to rebound. While wolves have been famously reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, the Wisconsin wolves came on their own, expanding from packs that had survived in the deep recesses of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.

Because the wolf was believed to be a wilderness species, no one figured the population would get too big in more fragmented Wisconsin. Conservation groups set a rough goal of around 80 wolves for the state, but few imagined it ever happening. Diseases such as sarcoptic mange and canine parovirus kept numbers low, and in the mid 1980s agencies began talking about closing roads to encourage their recovery.

The idea drew the interest of David Mladenoff MS’79 PhD’85, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology, who set out to study how wolf-friendly Wisconsin’s landscape was. Using GIS maps and computer modeling, he looked at where wolves had already established themselves and mapped out similar habitat throughout the state. Then he took it to its logical conclusion. “What if wolves actually fill up the stuff that we’ve mapped,” he says. “What might that mean?”

Mladenoff’s projections stunned Adrian Wydeven, a conservation biologist who has led the DNR’s wolf team for nearly 20 years. “David was estimating we’d be able to have 350 to 500 wolves in the state,” he recalls. “At the time, that just seemed incredible.” But the population kept growing, pushing south and west. Official counts now put the Wisconsin wolf population at between 537 and 564.

When Mladenoff rebuilt the model last year with fresh data, he found that while wolves still prefer more remote areas, they have occupied much more of the landscape. “Not only do they not require wilderness, they will live absolutely everywhere,” he says. “As long as you don’t kill them, or hit them with a car, and there are enough deer, they’re fine. And of course, sometimes things substitute for deer.”

Chiefly what substitutes are livestock, especially young calves and sheep, and hunting dogs. Between 1980 and 1988, when Wisconsin’s wolf population hovered in the teens and twenties, there were only three recorded incidents of wolves killing pets or livestock. But as the population has grown, so have the losses. The DNR says there were 47 cases involving wolf attacks last year. Most of the livestock are calves on beef farms, and the DNR compensates farmers at full market value for lost animals. Wolves also attack hunting dogs, typically when dogs get too close to denning sites on training runs. In 2008, 21 hunting dogs were recorded killed by wolves. The state compensates these losses, too, up to a maximum of $2,500 per dog.

Adrian Treves and his wife, Lisa Naughton, began their collaboration on wolves in Wisconsin with a stack of the complaints submitted by farmers and hunters. The DNR hoped that Naughton, a UW professor of geography who specializes in human/wildlife interactions, would have some insight on the mounting frustration with wolf attacks. But she was under tenure deluge at the time and gave the folder to Treves. “It was all the complaints-the whole story for each farmer,” he recalls. But as he read, he became more and more fascinated. He had expected a monolithic opposition from those who had lost valued animals to wolves. Instead, the range of opinions flowed from seeing wolves’ natural beauty to a scorched-earth desire to get rid of them all.

And so was born the Living With Wolves project. Treves concentrates on the patterns of wolf attacks-why some packs depredate and others don’t, and why some farms are vulnerable while others are unscathed. Naughton concentrates on public attitudes and damage payments. Both admit they’ve been drawn further into the wolf project than they expected.

“The fact that wolves made it back on their own into Wisconsin, into a place inhabited by and used by people, gives me more hope for the places I work in the rest of the world where there isn’t a big pristine place to put wildlife in,” explains Naughton.

At the same time, Naughton and Treves understand that the wolves’ success hinges delicately on people’s willingness to put up with them. Attitudes toward wolves somewhat resemble attitudes toward politics: About a quarter of people just don’t care at all. Another quarter care very deeply, some passionately opposed and some passionately protective. These are the party faithful-bear hunters and anti-hunters-who are unlikely to change their minds. Then there are the swing voters, those who care about wolves and can be convinced with data.

But within that framework are fascinating nuances. For example, Wisconsin residents have been asked repeatedly how many wolves the state should have, and each time the question is asked, the number has increased, roughly paralleling the state’s actual wolf population. But even as the support for a larger population rises, sentiment for some kind of wolf control is rising as well.

“People seem willing to tolerate a larger population of wolves, but at the same time they are less tolerant of the problems associated with wolves,” says Treves.

Sheep’s Clothing

The wolf’s shifting status as an endangered species provides a window into that conflict. In March 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved to de-list the wolf in areas that it deemed the wolf population sufficiently recovered, causing a coalition of animal-welfare groups-including the Humane Society, Help Our Wolves Live, Born Free USA and Friends of Animals and Their Environment-to sue to prevent a potential hunt. In September 2008, those groups won, and the wolf was re-listed in the Great Lakes region. In January of this year, the outgoing Bush administration announced intent to again de-list wolves in the western Great Lakes and northern Rockies, but the action was stalled by the Obama administration. Few expect that this action will be the last in the wolf’s on-again, off-again saga.

Even pro-wolf groups appear divided. Several science-based environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife, did not join the Wisconsin suit, but instead joined a suit over the de-listing of Rocky Mountain wolves. Treves says the rift reflects a philosophical difference: Animal-welfare groups focus on protecting every individual animal, while the more-traditional environmental groups are interested in the overall health of the population.

That divide makes the DNR’s policy choice difficult. If the wolf is removed from the endangered species list, the agency will have to weigh hunting as one of the state’s potential wolf-management strategies-a decision that is bound to be controversial no matter which way it goes. “Extremes tend to get featured in the media, and if you go to any kind of public meeting about wolf management, you’ll often get representatives of interest groups on either extreme who will say things that don’t quite match even their constituencies,” says Treves. “And that creates a polarized atmosphere.”

That’s where the now-silent majority will have its power. How will they interpret the expanding wolf population and the proposals to deal with it? That’s what managers like Wydeven want to know and what researchers like Naughton and Treves want to find out.

“A reading of where public attitudes are coming from gives us a sense of what kind of things we can propose,” says Wydeven. What kind of regulations will work. Where wolves can live and be accepted as wild neighbors. But also where a growing wolf population is likely to pose problems.

Certainly, Wydeven knows that patience with wolves wears most thin among those who suffer their losses. “The people who accept these large predators are often the people who don’t live near them,” he says. “If you look at the people who are living in areas where wolves actually are, (attitudes) still tend to be negative. And I think for long-term viability, we need to do a better job getting better acceptance by people living close to wolves.”

Naughton notes that damage payments can help alleviate some of those concerns. “What better way to balance the very uneven costs and benefits of conserving something like a wolf?” she asks. “Most of the U.S. and Wisconsin love the idea of having wolves. But it’s a few people who have to absorb the cost by having to be at risk of losing pets and livestock. Compensation doesn’t necessarily change individual attitudes about wolves, but it does buy wolves precious political space.”

Hunting the Hunter

Hunting actually might have the same effect. Naughton notes that bears cause far more economic damage than wolves, but they generate fewer complaints. Could that tolerance be driven to some extent by the rising popularity of bear hunting? “There is a kind of alienation from wolves that hunting may remedy,” she suggests.

But the interplay of hunting and damage payments gets tricky. Compensation payments come from the DNR endangered resources fund, which includes proceeds from sales of wolf license plates and income tax checkoffs. More than a quarter of these contributors say they deeply oppose public hunting of wolves, suggesting they might stop giving if the state authorizes a hunt. That could mean a loss of a half million dollars, more than could be offset by the sale of hunting permits.

And budget might be the least of the issues raised by a proposed hunt. Tim Van Deelen, an assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology, says hunting wolves would throw all kinds of new variables into the management equation. “Harvesting wolves is different,” he cautions, especially when compared to the brute-force numbers game we play with deer. “There are a million or more deer, but perhaps only about 600 wolves. Each individual removal is proportionately a much bigger part of the population.”

If a hunt were to adopt the state’s goal of 350 wolves outside of Indian reservations, Van Deelen points out, the state would need two kinds of hunts-one to nearly halve the population to the target, and then an annual removal of around 40 wolves to maintain that level. And we really know very little about the impact a hunt might have on pack structure.

“Let’s say as part of your public hunt you wipe out the alpha female. You wipe out reproduction for that pack for at least the first year. Does the pack stay together? Or do you wipe out reproduction for the next year? Those are things we haven’t been able to predict yet,” he says. Three hundred and fifty may seem like plenty of wolves, but in terms of population dynamics, it creates a system that is unstable and difficult to manage.

A bigger target population would be more stable, but it would also create a doubled-edged problem. While wolf advocates would be most likely to support a larger pack, they will likely oppose any hunt. And the groups most actively pushing a wolf hunt-including deer and bear hunters-want fewer wolves, not more. Furthermore, Wydeven believes a wolf hunt would have to be surgically planned to target wolves that were posing a particular threat to dogs and livestock. And it’s unclear that hunters would even be interested in a hunt this proscribed.

“We need to have a discussion about acceptance for more than 350 wolves,” Van Deelen says. “Is the level of wolf damage that we’re incurring here so intolerable that we need to cut the population almost by half? I don’t think so. Like a lot of natural resource issues, the agenda is set by the people who scream the loudest.”

Middle Ground

David Mladenoff ponders the math. “Five hundred wolves? A million deer? We can have a lot more wolves,” he says. “But that’s unfortunately not what’s going to happen. I think we’re seeing that change in attitude already. And the irony is that we can actually probably have more wolves in the state if we’re able to have some kind of active management.”

Wydeven wants to wait and see. He’s hopeful that allowing property owners to remove problem wolves, an option that was briefly in force, may become available again if the wolf is taken off the endangered list. If that happens, he says, “it’s possible that we might start seeing the population stabilize at a level that’s reasonable for the landscape, that there may not be a need for a public harvest.”

But people need to change some habits, as well. Bear hunters need to think twice about where and when they run their dogs. And farmers may need to change some husbandry practices to protect young livestock. Those who live near wolves need to appreciate and accept that wolves have changed their definition of home.

Mladenoff remembers giving a talk, perhaps a decade ago, where he laid out how we would eventually reach this point in our relationship with wolves. A student approached afterward, very frustrated. “Why can’t we just leave the wolves alone?” she asked. “I really feel the same thing,” he answered. “But there is no place on the planet that is unmanaged, if you use ‘managed’ in a sense of either intentional or unintentional human impacts. No place. And this is how we affect this part of the planet.”

Then he wound around to a message that feels even more apt today. “If we want to have some of these components of natural systems around,” he told the student, “we just have to be more creative about our attitude toward this wild/non-wild dichotomy. We have to have a different attitude.”

For most of our history, that attitude has been to vilify and kill wolves however we could. Then we swung wildly to the other extreme, adopting them as sacred icons of untamed wilderness. And as Naughton warns, “neither is going to be an appropriate model for living with wolves. Ultimately, to learn to live with wolves, we have to figure out how to make fair rules and live with each other-meaning people who have very different values about wolves and nature.”

SIDEBAR — Maps: Where the wolves live

These two maps were produced by CALS forest ecologist David Mladenoff and colleagues to show where gray wolves live–and are likely to live–in Wisconsin.

In the first map, black polygons represent known wolf pack territories mapped by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2007, using both radio telemetry and field mapping. They are shown superimposed over classification of land use and land cover classes from the U.S. National Land Cover Data program (NLCD 2006) based on Landsat satellite images.

In the second figure, the same wolf pack territories are shown on a map based on a GIS model of the probability of wolves successfully occupying a part of the landscape. (Red areas are the most wolf friendly; blue areas are the least.) The areas currently occupied by wolves were used to calculate the model, which considered the presence of roads and agriculture as negative factors in how habitable the landscape might be to wolves.

Map credit: Change in Occupied Wolf Habitat in the Northern Great Lakes Region. 2009. David J. Mladenoff, Murray K. Clayton, Sarah D. Pratt, Theodore A. Sickley and Adrian P. Wydeven. The article appears in Recovery of Gray Wolves in the Great Lakes Region of the United States: An Endangered Species Success Story, a book edited by Adrian P. Wydeven, Timothy R.Van Deelen and Edward J. Heske, published by Springer in 2009.

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