Jodi Habush Sinykin is an environmental attorney specializing in wildlife and water issues. Donald Waller is an ecologist and conservation biologist recently retired from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
The wolves stood no chance. This unprecedented hunt took place during the breeding season, killing pregnant females and disrupting family packs at a time critical to pup survival. A full accounting of the hunt’s biological toll is impossible, as the state declined to inspect carcasses. Most wolves were killed by hound hunters, using successive packs of dogs to pursue wolves for hours on end. No wonder a staffer at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) called the hunt a “[expletive] abomination.”
The horrific episode raises serious questions: Why do we allow unethical wolf hunts to take place? And just as importantly, why are we allowing the narrow interests of hunters to override sound, science-based conservation policy?
These events unfolded quickly following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision in the waning days of the Trump administration to delist the wolf as endangered. While the DNR announced plans for a wolf hunt in November 2021, a hunters’ group linked to conservative activists sued the DNR to implement an immediate wolf hunt under a state statute enacted in 2012. This law makes Wisconsin the only state to mandate wolf hunts by law and allow wolf hunting with packs of unleashed dogs. On Feb. 12, a Wisconsin circuit court judge agreed, prompting the DNR to hastily assemble a lottery to distribute 2,380 licenses (twice the usual number) to 27,000 applicants. The melee ensued.
Native American tribes in Wisconsin revere wolves. The Anishinaabe origin story holds that wolves and humans were created as brothers, their fates inextricably entwined. In keeping with their sovereign treaty rights across ceded territories of Wisconsin, these tribal nations were entitled to 81 of the 200 wolves deemed harvestable by the DNR. They killed none, expecting that this would reduce the wolf kill to 119. Instead, their trust and treaties were betrayed.
Beyond these serious legal issues, is killing wolves for “sport” under state-sanctioned hunting programs justified? Surveys confirm that extreme methods of hunting, such as those applied in the Wisconsin wolf hunt, violate contemporary American values. A majority, including many hunters, believe that wolves, like other wildlife, have intrinsic value beyond a trophy pelt. Most recognize that wolves, like dogs, are conscious, feeling beings with personalities and social relationships that deserve humane treatment and respect.
Wildlife agencies face growing numbers of citizens opposed to hunting and trapping wolves. In seeking a rationale to justify state-sponsored wolf seasons, some point to livestock predation. This might sound plausible, but facts prove otherwise. Wolves kill relatively few farm animals, and hunting seasons do not address the few wolves at issue.
Some adhere to the slogan “shoot a wolf, save a deer.” Wolves do in fact eat deer, but they hardly threaten Wisconsin’s 1.8 million deer herd. Renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold shot wolves as a young wildlife manager, but he realized his grave mistake decades later: “Just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer,” he wrote.
Wolves benefit deer in this larger view. They cull old and sick animals and limit the over-browsing that causes deer to starve and populations to crash. Chronic wasting disease, which is spreading rapidly among deer in Wisconsin and many other states, doesn’t occur in areas where wolves thrive. Deer are wary around wolves. Wary deer move more and spend less time eating understory plants and tree seedlings. Wolves protect forests by limiting deer impacts, enhancing forest regeneration and protecting soils. These enhance carbon uptake and storage. Wolves also protect human health by reducing deer ticks that spread Lyme and other diseases. Top carnivores reduce deer-vehicle collisions, potentially preventing thousands of human injuries, hundreds of fatalities and more than $2 billion of damage over 30 years in the eastern United States. Wolves earn their keep.
Arguments for and against wolf hunting will continue to raise important questions. Are wolves fully recovered now that they occupy parts of the Upper Midwest and northern Rockies? Or should their populations expand to available habitat within their original continental range? Will we replay intense hunts to cap wolf numbers at unjustified low levels or allow wolf populations to recover enough to regain ecological functionality?
The narrow interests of wolf hunters can no longer dominate these discussions. Others must join the discussion to represent wolves and the economic, ecological, aesthetic and spiritual values they provide. Let Native Americans and those who support things wild and free have a voice, too.