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Wolf thrives after facing Extinction

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1985: Just more than a Dozen, now in the Hundreds…

ASHLAND COUNTY – At one time thousands roamed the state, but just 25 years ago the timber wolf was the most endangered of Wisconsin’s animals and rarely seen in our forests.

Today the situation is much different, and new challenges surround the king of predators.

Back in 1985, just more than a dozen wolves roamed the northern part of the state.

At that time, Department of Natural Resources wolf biologist Dick Thiel talked about the imperiled population with FOX 11.

“There are four packs in the state. And the first wolves that we were aware of came back into the state in the early 70s, and developed into a pack. And since then they’ve spread out into about four packs,” said Thiel.

Thiel’s job with the DNR at the time was to foster the wolf population. But it was a huge challenge. The predator’s existence was being threatened by a deadly virus.

“Canine parvovirus. It’s a fairly prevalent disease in dogs, coyotes, foxes and now wolves. It usually causes diarrhea, fever, listlessness and ultimately death,” explained Thiel.

The wolves overcame the virus, but with a mortality rate at 35%, remained endangered.

Looking back, Thiel, who still works for the DNR, but in a different capacity, says the situation was bleak.

“Those early years were really touch and go,” said Thiel. “It was hit and miss as to whether they’d even be around in 20 years.”

In the mid-80s, Thiel traveled the state’s northern forests to figure out how many wolves were here, and find established territories. A plan to aid the wolf’s recovery was set into motion in 1989.

“The first phase was to basically define what we had as a viable population, and the numbers that we came up with were 80 wolves to basically down list them from endangered to threatened,” Thiel said.

Tracking, trapping and radio collaring the animals helped the DNR learn more about the wolf’s status, and through managing wolf habitat, the numbers increased. Thiel said by the mid-90s the situation had greatly improved.

“That was incredibly encouraging and it’s just been going up since then. It’s been marvelous since then really in terms of a conservation success story,” Thiel said.

Today the DNR estimates around 700 wolves roam the state’s northern and central forests.

“Wolves are doing very well,” according to Adrian Wydeven, who now heads up the wolf recovery program.

“A major part of managing the wolf population is just doing our annual surveys and that includes activities that we do year round,” Wydeven said.

Annual counts are done in winter and include track surveys and monitoring of radio collared wolves from airplanes.

The DNR also has a strong volunteer base aiding its efforts, and says it is looking for even more people to track wolves next year.

State wildlife officials say the volunteer surveys are crucial to their estimates. Training sessions and wolf ecology courses for volunteers start this month.

Ray Leonard with the Timber Wolf Information Network is one of the instructors.

“We want people to accept wolves on the landscape, but in doing so we cover the negative effects they can have as well as the positive effects,” said Leonard.

Another way wolves are tracked is through howl surveys. They are done in summer and early fall to locate wolf packs and find out which have produced pups.

In October, I joined Wydeven on one of those surveys. We stopped at several different spots in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest where Wydeven let out long, loud howls. We waited patiently for a response.

At our third stop, in the dark, and in the midst of wolf territory, one of Wydeven’s calls brought on a chorus of howls that lasted at least 30 seconds. He estimated the pack was about a half mile away.

“By finding out where they’re calling from, we can often find some of their rendezvous sites. These are areas where they spend the summertime,” explained Wydeven.

Wydeven later showed me a video of wolves at a rendezvous site. A hunter near Rhinelander caught the animals on camera while sitting in his stand. Wydeven estimated there were about four adults and nine pups at the site.

“The rendezvous sites are referred to as nursery sites, or kindergarten areas for wolf pup,” Wydeven said as we viewed the recording. “You can kind of see on this picture it just a place where they like to play around romp around chase each other.”

Rendezvous sites are an exclusive part of a pack’s territory and highly protected. The DNR says the pack in the video killed three bear hunting hounds over the summer.

The increased number of wolves in the state has become an issue among hunters, farmers and people living with domestic pets who say they’ve been impacted by the predator.

“As people move and develop into these areas, where wildlife once called their home, those areas then – there are conflicts many times. There are issues that arise because people and wildlife don’t always get along well together. I think it’s an understanding of what the resources are really about. What do the animals need and
what do the people need and are we willing to compromise some of that,” said Ty Baumann, director of the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay.

Today’s wolf numbers are double the management goal set in 1999. But the DNR can do little to control the population, because the animal is listed as a federal endangered species.

Right now the DNR is fighting to de-list the predator so it can deal with problem wolves.

“We just need to be able to get better control on the population so that where these hot spots of depredation; in those areas we can reduce the abundance of wolves. Certainly there are areas where there are too many wolves, and there are other areas where the numbers right now are not causing problems,” Wydeven said.

The Humane Society of The United States strongly opposes delisting the wolf.

“The wolf as a species has not recovered,” said HSUS Minnesota state director Howard Goldman. “Being classified under the endangered species act-listed as threatened or protected under the Endangered Species Act is a national designation it’s not a statewide designation or even a regional designation.”

“If it stays on the list, I see a continued erosion of people’s attitudes toward wolf management continue, increases in illegal killing, higher levels of wolf depredation on livestock,” said Wydeven.

If the wolf is de-listed, the DNR says it would consider a hunting season, but Wydeven said that wouldn’t happen for a few years. From a management standpoint, he says he doesn’t want numbers to drop below 500.

“We certainly don’t want to get into a situation again where we’d have to re-list them as an endangered species,” said Wydeven.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has received a petition from Wisconsin and other Midwest states to review the status of the gray wolf.

The government agency is taking public comment on the proposal to take the wolf off the federal endangered species list.

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