Controlling gray wolves to reasonable levels is first and foremost for improving deer hunting in our public forests.
Controlling gray wolves to reasonable levels is first and foremost for improving deer hunting in our public forests.
THERE are numerous reasons for today’s push to control gray wolf numbers in northern Wisconsin, but none of them are more significant to me than taking some pressure off the national forest deer herd.

Despite increased logging in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, we aren’t seeing a corresponding resurgence of deer. And I blame that on record-high predator populations, including wolves, black bears, coyotes and bobcats.

There’s hardly a deer hunting report involving the national forest where the impact of wolves isn’t mentioned. And while depre­dation of deer is a big deal, especially on fawns, there are numerous stories of ruined seasons “because the wolves moved into the area we hunt.”

That’s why it is such good news that U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has again introduced bipartisan legislation that would remove gray wolves in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota from the endangered species list.

While his first effort a year ago didn’t work out, this attempt is an amendment to the Natural Resources Management Act that would restore the gray wolf to the status determined to be appropriate by Department of Interior wildlife experts in 2011, when they were delisted.

“Four years ago, an activist federal judge ignored recommendations from wildlife experts and President Obama’s Department of the Interior to delist the gray wolf as an endangered species in the western Great Lakes,” said Johnson.

“It is past time for Congress to act on what we have heard from state DNR experts, Wisconsin farmers, ranchers, loggers and sportsmen for years: gray wolf listing decisions should come from wildlife experts, not from courtrooms.”

It is significant that Johnson’s amendment is co-sponsored by senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). Wyoming is included in the amendment with the western Great Lakes states.

The legislation would allow the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to develop its own wolf management program — something the state has had in place for more than two decades with a management goal of around 350 wolves.

After the state had conducted three conservative harvest seasons that brought wolf numbers down to about 650 animals, a federal judge overturned the 2011 delisting that had been recommended by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Putting gray wolves back on the endangered species list stripped Wisconsin of all management authority, from harvest seasons to lethal control methods on depredating wolves.

Since 2014, wolf numbers have rebounded to record levels in Wisconsin. Last April, the DNR said the state contained a minimum of between 905 and 944 wolves in 238 packs.

It is because of those high wolf numbers that depredation complaints from farmers and pet owners are causing great anguish and frustration. Just last year, authorities confirmed that Wisconsin wolves killed 18 hunting dogs, 23 calves, seven heifers, three steers, one cow and one draft horse colt.

The DNR’s 2018 depredation report also included dozens of confirmed livestock and dog injuries due to wolves, 30 unconfirmed depredation or harassment cases, and dozens of verified harassment cases involving hundreds of calves, cattle, steers and dairy cows.

Some studies suggest the state can support 700 to 1,000 wolves (late winter count), but that level isn’t socially tolerable considering the widespread complaints on wolf numbers and the push for legislative remedies to the controversy.

Controlling wolf numbers is just one part of the solution to improving deer populations in the national forest, which is home to one of the highest densities of black bears in the nation.

The DNR gets the credit and the blame for that, for they’ve been on a crusade since 1985 to increase the bear population. And suddenly, without input from hunters or the public on a management plan, Wisconsin became the bear capital of the United States.

According to state biologists, Wisconsin hunters harvest more black bears every year than any other state in the union. Bears, with their incredible sense of smell, are known to track down and kill deer fawns in spring.

Add to that one of the largest coyote populations in state history and extremely healthy numbers of bobcats, and you end up with record predator numbers across the northern landscape.

But once again, let’s get the story straight. I’m not suggesting that we put any of these species in danger of overharvest or extinction. I’m not advocating that the only good predator is a dead predator because they happen to compete with hunters.

There needs to be a balance that we can all live with, including the wolf enthusiasts. Wolves certainly have a place here, but not without some controls. State wildlife experts should have more of a say in that than federal courts.

The biggest problem wolves will face in the future is the bad taste that has formed in the mouths of former wolf supporters. Some are so frustrated with federal interference in reasonable state management efforts that they no longer back wolf reintroduction.

In fact, had we known the feds would dictate so much for so long, creating a wolf overpopulation here, most would have balked at a wolf management plan. 

That’s one very good reason for Congress to support this delisting legislation, before more state residents turn their backs on the gray wolf.