To Kill a Wolf

As brushes with wolves rise, wildlife experts weigh whether the best way to preserve wolves could include hunting them.

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.

Not only do they not require wilderness, they will live absolutely everywhere.

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.