Inside the Bitter Debate Over How to Manage Wolves in Wisconsin

The large carnivores stand among the most adaptable animals in the wild. They can survive in almost any habitat. They could even be our neighbors. But should they be?

Late last January, when the short days were made to feel shorter by the muted-gray skies of a pandemic winter, a spark of intrigue ignited across Bay View social media. Over the course of several days, images of a large canid began circulating online. The animal, which looked to weigh around 100 pounds with a long bushy tail, pointed snout and a fur coat that was a marbled blend of gray, black and white, was spotted in several locations around the Bay View neighborhood. One Instagram post by furniture resale shop Ormson Supply showed the creature standing on the sidewalk against an otherwise quiet streetscape colored by freshly fallen snow with cars parked in nearby lots. The caption: “@badmoonsaloon caught this wolf outside our shop. The Norse gods are watching us.” 

Photo courtesy of Kristin Graves

A few days later, on Jan. 27, a post popped up on the Humboldt Park East page of Nextdoor, the neighborhood social media site, detailing a romp through the area by a “healthy coyote,” with a series of comments, many of which were accompanied by photographs – trotting along the lakefront, crossing a street. “The first time I saw the coyote – I thought it was a wolf!” one commenter remarked. “Largest I’ve ever seen around here,” another responded. The original poster responded in the thread that a friend who works in forestry confirmed that the animal was indeed a coyote – albeit a particularly large, fluffy one. 

So the Bay View wolf probably was not one. Despite the creature’s identity, the question remained: Could it have been a wolf? 

“Wolves are moving south, and they have been for a while,” says Tim Van Deelen, a professor of wildlife ecology at UW-Madison with a focus on large mammals in the Great Lakes region. “We’ve seen wolves go through Chicago. We know one wolf was killed in a cornfield in Indiana. And if you think about the most direct route, they would walk right through Milwaukee. That is part of how wolves disperse. Is it common? No. But is it out of the realm of possibility? No.” 


THE WOLF HAS LONG BEEN a polarizing character. To some, they are majestic, regal creatures and icons of North America, while to others, they are a dangerous threat that prey on valuable livestock and beloved household pets. The question of wolf “management” – i.e., where wolves should live, how large the population should be, and how to balance the two concerns – has been a heated debate in Wisconsin for decades.

Before the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, wolves were driven to near extinction through a mix of hunting, poisoning and other forms of sanctioned lethal removal. But under protected status, wolf populations began to rebuild across Wisconsin and the country. By 2020, several states reported healthy, stabilizing wolf populations. Wisconsin alone was home to 1,195 wolves. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the species recovered and they were removed from the endangered list last October.

The decision – and the controversial return of a Wisconsin wolf hunt – was the latest flashpoint in a long and contentious conversation around wolves in the state, and one that not only points to differing opinions about wolf populations, but something deeper, too.

As Wisconsin’s gray wolf population stabilizes, it raises questions: How many wolves should be allowed to live, and where do Wisconsinites want them to be? Those questions will largely be determined by lawmakers and the courts. It’s separate from another question: Where should wolves live in order to continue to thrive?


Gray Wolf Population & Depredation

1980-2020

SOURCE: WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES


TO UNDERSTAND HOW Wisconsin’s wolf population, and territory, might expand, one must begin with how they live. 

Wolves are apex predators. They will dabble in smaller game like beavers, rabbits and rodents but prefer large, hoofed quarry like deer, elk, bison and moose. Livestock, of course, are much easier prey. 

And wolves are social and territorial animals, usually living in packs of four or five. The main breeding pair are in charge of the pack and lead efforts to find food and maintain territory, which, according to DNR data, averages between 50 and 60 square miles in Wisconsin. Non-breeding wolves tend to establish their own packs in two ways: Either they wait to achieve alpha status within their natal pack, or they set out on their own to find unoccupied territory. 

With a healthy wolf population, the latter becomes increasingly likely. “It’s just a very natural thing for young wolves to disperse out,” explains Van Deelen. “They’re basically teenagers, and they’re kicking out on their own for the first time. They’re looking for habitat, resources and a mate to set up shop.”

When setting out on their own, wolves will take one of two paths. Some will remain close to their natal pack and attempt to start a family nearby. Others, by contrast, will travel enormous distances in hopes of carving out entirely new territory. Biologists call the latter “long-distance dispersers.”  Both male and female wolves travel at similar rates and distances. According to a 2020 study published in Northeastern Naturalist, long-distance dispersing wolves fitted with trackers traveled as far as 1,000 miles – the straight-line distance between Milwaukee and Austin, Texas – in a four-month period. 

“Where there are wolves there is conflict, and conflict tends to mean a decline in attitude toward wolves.”

– Erik Olson, Associate Professor of Natural Resources at Northland College

Some go much further. One such adolescent, a Minnesota wolf who was tracked for 179 days, traveled through northwestern Wisconsin eastward to Green Bay, then to La Crosse and back up to Grantsburg before returning to her home territory in Camp Ripley, Minnesota. In total, she covered at least 2,600 miles and moved through at least 27 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties in less than three months. 

And while this particular wolf returned home, Erik Olson, a professor at Northland College in Ashland who has studied wolf behavior for much of his career, says they are exceptionally good at adapting to new habitats and can establish themselves in almost any climate. “If you look across the globe,” says Olson, “wolves live in pretty much every biome. They live in the Rockies, they live in the tundra, they’ve lived in rainforests, temperate forests and deserts. What this means is that if there’s food available, wolves can likely live there.” 

This is one reason wolves have been so successful at recolonizing much of the forest areas in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan over the last 30 years. But, despite their adaptability, there remains one hurdle that wolves cannot seem to overcome: humans. There are a variety of reasons the built environment proves difficult for wolves. There are roads and cars, which raises the odds of a wolf getting hit by a vehicle; there’s the possibility that a wolf will kill a pet or livestock, and be targeted in kind; there’s illegal poaching. 

That doesn’t mean wolves haven’t tried living in close proximity to people. University of Minnesota research biologist L. David Mech followed one gray wolf pack over three years as they attempted to establish a home just 20 miles north of Minneapolis. It began in 2014 when two wolves met and set up a den in an oak savanna nature preserve. They had one pup that year and eight more the following spring. The pack, which grew as large as 19 by 2016, was spotted on trail cameras and by residents who liked to hike outside the city. Then reports of problems began to trickle in. With more mouths to feed in the pack, the wolves began to attack dogs and cows, killing a handful in the summer of 2016. In response, state rangers killed three wolves. When another calf was found dead a few months later, another three wolves were killed. In the end, eight wolves were killed by rangers and one died in a snare. No one has seen the wolves since.


Gray Wolf Range

1980-2020

SOURCE: WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES


BUT WHILE REPORTS such as Mech’s make the possibility of wolves in, or near, cities seem highly unlikely, the wolf’s cousin, the coyote (and even wolf-coyote hybrids) has been enormously successful at colonizing U.S. and Canadian cities. 

Despite a long history of extreme persecution at the hands of humans, the coyote has managed to exponentially expand its territory in the last few decades. 

In urbanized Milwaukee County, where rivers and greenways crisscross the city, people have nearly 1,000 coyote sightings over the last five years. As a result, the animals are a common topic on Nextdoor. A few weeks after the initial Bay View post on Nextdoor, for example, a new discussion cropped up.This time, a resident posted a map pinpointing a spot just outside the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, near Seminary Woods and Lake Michigan. It read: “Timberwolf (sighting) in St. Francis. Anyone have video?”

The post sat for days without any responses. And many such posts do. Milwaukeeans have grown so accustomed to coyotes that some would sooner complain about their neighbor’s coyote sightings than offer up video documentation. On a similar January post, one user wrote: “Enough about coyotes, we know we have them around. I don’t think we need to post every time we see one.” 

In many ways, the two animals are not so different from one another. Like wolves, coyotes tend to prefer areas of wooded or shrubby habitat. They have similar coats and snouts. And they tend to stay away from humans. But, says Olson, there are some crucial distinctions. Body mass, for one. Coyotes tend to be significantly smaller than wolves. They are also particularly clever at finding food, and most of their diet is made up of rodents, rabbits and fruit, though they will hunt deer as well. And while they sometimes travel in packs, coyotes are often spotted alone. For this reason, they are also less territorial than wolves. All of these differences make coyotes significantly better at adapting to – and even thriving in – cities than wolves. “They are just extremely cosmopolitan,” says Olson. 

But while urban apex predators seem highly unlikely, that is precisely what’s happened across Europe over the last two decades. According to a study published in the journal Science, large carnivore populations have rebounded across the continent, with one third of the European mainland now home to at least one large predator species.

Wolves, in particular, have been found in 28 countries across forests, farmland and even suburbs. As many as 2,000 wolves have been counted in Italy alone. One pack of four was spotted in 2017 living right between Rome’s largest airport, a city highway and the Mediterranean Sea. Some attribute the success of wolves in Europe to a shifted diet. Many European wolves eat not only large prey, but also small mammals that are much more plentiful. 

Photo by Getty Images

More than diet or even acreage, says Randy Johnson, a large carnivore specialist with Wisconsin’s DNR, a wolf’s ability to thrive closer to urban centers depends almost entirely on human attitudes. “With a healthy wolf population, it’s fair to say that a wolf could pop up anywhere in the state,” explains Johnson. “It’s natural for them to disperse out and look for territory. And there are really two things that drive wolf populations: prey and people. Wolves can only persist where people will let them.”

But asking Wisconsinites to shift their opinions on wolves remains a tall order, as the reignition of debate since the wolf’s delisting has shown. “The best predictor of people’s attitudes toward wolves is conflict,” says Olson. “Where there are wolves there is conflict, and conflict tends to mean a decline in attitude toward wolves.”

In other words, as much as we’re intrigued by these majestic animals, the more wolves expand into populated parts of Wisconsin, the more problems they will create. And the more problems they create, the less people will want them around. So perhaps the right question isn’t whether the thick-coated animal spotted in Bay View last January could be a wolf, but whether we want it to be.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s November issue.

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