Gray wolf mortality patterns in Wisconsin from 1979 to 2012
May 5, 2022
Starting in the 1970s, many populations of large-bodied mammalian carnivores began to recover from centuries of human-caused eradication and habitat destruction. The recovery of several such populations has since slowed or reversed due to mortality caused by humans. Illegal killing (poaching) is a primary cause of death in many carnivore populations. Law enforcement agencies face difficulties in preventing poaching and scientists face challenges in measuring it. Both challenges are exacerbated when evidence is concealed or ignored. We present data on deaths of 937 Wisconsin gray wolves (Canis lupus) from October 1979 to April 2012 during a period in which wolves were recolonizing historic range mainly under federal government protection. We found and partially remedied sampling and measurement biases in the source data by reexamining necropsy reports and reconstructing the numbers and causes of some wolf deaths that were never reported. From 431 deaths and disappearances of radiocollared wolves aged > 7.5 months, we estimated human causes accounted for two-thirds of reported and reconstructed deaths, including poaching in 39–45%, vehicle collisions in 13%, legal killing by state agents in 6%, and nonhuman causes in 36–42%. Our estimate of poaching remained an underestimate because of persistent sources of uncertainty and systematic underreporting. Unreported deaths accounted for over two-thirds of all mortality annually among wolves > 7.5 months old. One-half of all poached wolves went unreported, or > 80% of poached wolves not being monitored by radiotelemetry went unreported. The annual mortality rate averaged 18% ± 10% for monitored wolves but 47% ± 19% for unmonitored wolves. That difference appeared to be due largely to radiocollaring being concentrated in the core areas of wolf range, as well as higher rates of human-caused mortality in the periphery of wolf range. We detected an average 4% decline in wolf population growth in the last 5 years of the study. Because our estimates of poaching risk and overall mortality rate exceeded official estimates after 2012, we present all data for transparency and replication. More recent additions of public hunting quotas after 2012 appear unsustainable without effective curtailment of poaching. Effective antipoaching enforcement will require more accurate estimates of poaching rate, location, and timing than currently available. Independent scientific review of methods and data will improve antipoaching policies for large carnivore conservation, especially for controversial species facing high levels of human-induced mortality.
Author(s): Adrian Treves, Julia A. Langenberg, José V. López-Bao, and Mark F. Rabenhorst