Wolves at the Door

The gray wolf has returned to Wisconsin in numbers greater than anyone had dreamed. UW faculty wonder how many wolves the state should have.


Istockphoto © Steve Geer

Once upon a time in Wisconsin, the big, bad wolf was an endangered species. Then he wasn’t. Then he was. Then he wasn’t. Then he was. Then not. Now he is. Again. And all in the last five years. It’s dizzying.

In the last generation, the gray wolf — or timber wolf, or Canis lupus, if you’re scientifically inclined — has made a remarkable comeback in Wisconsin. As recently as 1974, conventional wisdom held that our lupine population was zero. In 2009, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimated the count to fall between 626 and 662 — more, it turns out, than the state knows what to do with. Back when the DNR was formulating a wolf recovery plan, it set a goal of 350 to qualify the wolf as recovered. We’ve now passed that goal by more than 78 percent.

When Wisconsin’s wolf recovery is in the news these days, it’s usually in reference to the animals’ status with respect to the endangered species list. C. lupus has been included on that roll since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service distributed its first list in 1974, a year after Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. Since 2005, when the state’s wolf population topped 350, the DNR has been encouraging the federal government to delist C. lupus, but it has repeatedly been overturned by legal action, led (at least in the latest round) by the Humane Society of the United States.

As the administrative and legal battle over wolves’ status shows, Wisconsin is having a hard time figuring out what to think of its growing population of predators. While interest groups argue over what the state’s optimal number of wolves should be — or even if there is one — UW faculty see the animals’ return as an opportunity to study the interaction of a wild species in a modern environment.

How Many Is Enough?

“How fantastic to see a keystone predator return to Wisconsin,” says UW-Madison geography professor Lisa Naughton ’85, MS’87. The state, she notes, offers little actual wilderness. It’s a “mixed-use landscape,” she says, meaning that it’s largely dominated by human activity: agriculture, and small towns, as well as a few forests and bogs, all intersected and connected by a loose network of roads.

“Most of the world increasingly resembles Wisconsin in terms of human-dominated landscape,” she says. “That’s what makes [the wolf recovery] so exciting, so interesting, and so important.”

But, she knows, not everyone feels that way.

There is, for instance, Scott Meyer.


Wolves are now established in northern and central Wisconsin, but as they’ve spread, so has conflict. The purple, yellow, and red areas mark reports of wolf attacks on domestic animals. Map: Wisconsin DNR/Jane Wiedenhoeft and Drew Feldkirchner

In 2001, Meyer was hunting bobcats near Pelican Lake, east of Rhinelander, with a redbone hound named Bonnie. Meyer had raised Bonnie for twelve years, spending “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours” training her, but that all came to naught when the two were separated by a river and Bonnie found not a bobcat but a wolf.

“This was a relocated problem wolf that had been killing deer on a deer farm,” Meyer says. The DNR had moved it to the Pelican Lake area, but Meyer was unprepared to find it because, he says, officials didn’t inform the county. “I’ve always had a contention about that.”

By the time Meyer caught up with Bonnie, the hound was dead and partially eaten. “It was a horrific sight,” he says.

Meyer is convinced that Wisconsin has more than enough wolves — more, even, than the DNR says it has, and he’d like to see the state take action to control and reduce its population.

Howard Goldman MA’71, however, fears government is too ready to reduce the number of wolves. Goldman is the Humane Society of the United States’ state director for Minnesota, and he’s convinced there aren’t nearly enough wolves. That’s why the Humane Society has gone to court repeatedly to keep the animals on the endangered species list.

“We’ve argued successfully before federal courts that the wolf is not, in fact, recovered,” he says. “The Endangered Species Act states ‘a species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range’ is endangered. The [gray] wolf presently occupies only 5 percent of its historical range. Until the wolf is fully recovered, it should remain federally protected.”

Naughton is familiar with stories like Meyer’s and with opinions like Goldman’s. She and her husband, assistant professor Adrian Treves of the UW’s Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, formed the Living with Wolves project, an effort, she says, “to find a fair and ecologically sustainable approach to coexistence” with wolves. Part of that project’s work is listening to the various arguments and gauging the state’s public opinion about wolves.

Their work touches on a concept called social carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is an ecological term for the number of a given species that an ecosystem can sustainably support. Social carrying capacity, however, refers to the number of a species that people feel is appropriate.

“One really looks at two questions,” Treves says. “First, what’s the carrying capacity, which we think is somewhere between five hundred and seven hundred [wolves]. But second, is that tolerable? Will people who live in areas where wolves are active put up with that many over the long term?”

Treves and Naughton have conducted surveys of Wisconsin citizens since 2001 to measure their feelings about the growing wolf presence. They’ve read reports and complaints from people who have suffered wolf depredation, and they’ve attended public meetings where people have aired grievances — and occasionally support — about DNR wolf policies.

While Naughton says that the public meetings tend to be dominated by those who feel there are too many wolves (“Even in Madison,” she says, “where I was certain that wolf huggers would come out in force, the mood was solidly against them”), she says that overall, there’s widespread support for the animals.

“Most Wisconsin citizens want at least some wolf presence in the state,” she says. “But those who feel strongly, at either end of the spectrum, drive the argument.”

This has left Treves and Naughton open to angry late-night calls from political partisans. Still, they say their work is coming closer to its goal of defining a “fair and ecologically sustainable” wolf policy — and one that is increasingly tolerant of wolves.

“When the DNR set that 350 level, it was kind of pulling a number out of a hat,” Treves says. “No one had really done any research to see what the state’s carrying capacity or public tolerance was. But they actually did a pretty good job. When we did our first surveys in 2001, we found that [about] 350 was the tolerance level. But our more recent surveys are showing a higher number — one that falls closer to 500.”


On the hunt: DNR pilots follow radio signals to track wolves from the air. Though easy to spot against winter snow, the animals are virtually invisible in summer. Photo: Wolfgang Hoffmann

But he warns that this tolerance might not be entirely sustainable. Much of Wisconsin’s acceptance for wolves is based on the fact that the DNR reimburses those who have suffered wolf depredation, and the cost of those payments is rising. According to Adrian Wydeven, head of the DNR’s wolf recovery program, the state sets aside about $35,000 a year for wolf compensation — 3 percent of the amount that Wisconsin citizens pay when they purchase endangered resources license plates for their cars. But the actual costs have run much higher — $101,000 in the 2008–09 fiscal year. Hunting hounds like Meyer’s account for nearly half that total, some $48,250.

But while the reimbursements weigh down the DNR’s budget, they provide little solace to those who’ve suffered from depredation.

“Compensation is the last of your worries,” says Meyer, even if the loss is livestock. When it’s a hound like Bonnie, “it’s like losing a member of your family. They’re confidants, companions, buddies.”

Balancing the costs of wolves, however, are unexpected benefits. As wolves return to Wisconsin, they may be having a broad effect on the state’s ecology. UW-Madison botany professor Don Waller and others have been studying plant life in areas where wolf packs are active, and he believes they’re finding evidence that wolves’ predatory presence may have beneficial effects on plant life. Landscapes with wolves seem to support more diverse plant communities than similar areas without wolves. They do this, he thinks, through their effect on the deer population, both in number and behavior.

“Wolves have two kinds of effects,” Waller says. “First, there’s the numerical effect: wolves eat some deer, decreasing their density. But there’s also a less direct effect: wolves create an ecology of fear among deer. When predators are present, deer don’t just feed lazily. Instead, they get skittish, move more, and overgraze less.”

For scientists like Waller, who feel that the state’s large deer population has damaged diversity in general, wolves may be a biological boon. Waller notes that this agrees with the writings of Aldo Leopold, founder of the UW’s department of wildlife ecology. In his seminal essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold wrote that, “while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.” But hunters who prefer plentiful deer are less impressed.

Again, it leaves the question: are wolves protected enough, or are they too protected? The issue of whether wolves remain on the endangered species list, Naughton and Treves worry, has the potential to cut into and even reduce support for wolves around the state.

“There’s a real and growing difference among people who feel strongly about having wolves in the state,” says Naughton. “On the one hand, there are those who are interested in ecosystems and biodiversity, who would like to see decisions made for the good of the species as a whole. And on the other are animal rights groups, which would like to protect every individual wolf.”

As that difference grows, the Living with Wolves project is working to bring the various parties to an understanding. “Wolves have recovered beyond our expectations,” says Naughton. “But now comes the hard part — how do we live with them?”

Numbers Game

Irrespective of whether Wisconsin’s citizens feel the state has too many wolves or not enough, the more intriguing question to Tim Van Deelen, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at UW-Madison, is finding out how fast wolves can reproduce and spread. To that end, he’s been following the rising numbers reported by the DNR and trying to come up with mathematical models. But to make an educated guess about how many wolves there will be, it helps to have an accurate count of how many there are. And that number is surprisingly well documented.

Once upon a time, Wisconsin’s social carrying capacity for wolves was zero.

In the nineteenth century, C. lupus was abundant in the Midwest, but it was looked upon at best as a nuisance and at worst as a public danger. In 1865, the state began to offer hunters a bounty — initially $5 — for each wolf carcass they brought in. That bounty wasn’t repealed until 1957, shortly before wolves were extirpated. Although the DNR received occasional reports of lone wolves in remote regions, official opinion held that none made a permanent home here. Only about seven hundred wild wolves remained in the entire Midwest — all in Minnesota, where the forests were more remote, or in Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.

But things began to change after the passage of the Endangered Species Act. Once freed from danger, the number of gray wolves began to grow, and the Minnesota population started — slowly — to expand into the animal’s former territory, crossing into Wisconsin.

By 1980, the DNR estimated that there were between twenty-five and twenty-eight wolves in Wisconsin, most of them distributed among five packs in the northwest. And then the DNR did something very wise: it started a program of trapping wolves, attaching a radio collar to them, and monitoring their movements in the wild.

This program has continued over the last thirty years. Each spring, teams go out to trap wolves, attempting to catch and attach a radio collar to at least one adult animal in 15 to 20 percent of the state’s packs. Hundreds have been collared over the years, enabling the DNR to track wolves from the air year-round. Every month, DNR pilots take off, armed with a radio telemetry receiver and a global positioning system (GPS) device to find and record the location of dozens of wolves. Though the animals are nearly invisible from the air in summer — when the trees are in full leaf and the animals’ heather-colored coats blend into the landscape — pilots have a chance to spot and count wolves in the winter, or to direct DNR staff or volunteers on where to find them. The result has been a three-decade accounting of the wolf’s progress across the state.

“It’s an amazing data set,” says David Mladenoff ’73, MS’79, PhD’85, a UW-Madison professor of forest ecology. “Wisconsin was really smart to start [radio collaring] early on.”

Those data show that wolf populations remained fairly constant throughout the 1980s, but began showing signs of growth in 1990. But what that growth meant was open to interpretation. The federal government’s wolf recovery program set a goal of eighty animals for three consecutive years in Wisconsin and Michigan — meet that target and wolves would be upgraded from endangered to threatened. Get the number to a hundred, and wolves would be delisted altogether. In 1999, the DNR developed a state management plan with a goal of 250 wolves in Wisconsin before the animals would be removed from the state’s list of threatened species, and a long-term management goal of 350.

“At the time, this was fairly academic,” says Van Deelen. “In the 1990s, no one believed we’d ever see 350 wolves here.”

But the numbers continued to grow. The wolf population reached eighty for the first time in 1995, and it topped a hundred the next year. By 2003, it surged past 350 and continued rising. Today’s DNR estimate of between 626 and 662 is up 14 percent from last year’s. There are some 162 packs spread out across the northern and central parts of the state, and as many as 200 cubs may be born this year. Though many of them will die, enough will likely survive to continue growth.

The data have also taught ecologists a lot about what wolf habitat looks like.

“We used to think that wolves needed real wilderness areas to survive,” Mladenoff says. “But that’s not true. All they needed was a place where there’s enough prey (which in the Midwest would be white-tailed deer) and where people wouldn’t kill them, either deliberately or accidentally. Then they can get by almost anywhere.”

Still, wolves seem to like some geographic characteristics better than others, and Mladenoff has compiled those and mapped them in an effort to predict where wolf packs will become established. The single attribute that appears to attract wolves most is a lack of roads, which implies a lower level of human activity.

“Road density seems to be the key,” he says. “Of course, it’s not like wolves know this. They’re figuring it out by trial and error. They survive in some places and don’t in others, and they stay where they survive.”

So how many wolves can the state support? Both Mladenoff and Van Deelen suspect that the days of rapid multiplication may be coming to an end. As the number of wolves and packs has grown in recent years, they’ve filled up all of the best — that is, least road-dense — lands.

“If you look at the habitat wolves currently occupy, it’s not all good quality,” says Mladenoff. And in the poorer-quality areas, the wolf population “probably isn’t sustainable.”

Van Deelen used Mladenoff’s habitat research in his population models, and he concludes that the boom is near an end.

“If you look at the data, you see that there’s almost no support for continued exponential growth,” he says. Looking at wolf populations in the entire territory south of Lake Superior — Wisconsin and Michigan, primarily — he concludes that the carrying capacity for the entire region is only about 1,300 wolves, split roughly evenly between the two states.

That puts Wisconsin’s wolf carrying capacity at about the current level — though Van Deelen admits his calculations are far from iron-clad. “The trouble is that there are relatively few data points at recent, high-level density,” he says, meaning that it’s difficult to generalize from a few years and a few hundred wolves.

Still, the data on wolf expansion offer some insight on the animal’s ability to thrive. In fact, with so much available food — that is, with so many available deer — Van Deelen’s calculations

suggest that wolves could reproduce at such a rate that they could withstand a hunt that culled up to 30 percent a year.

But he doesn’t recommend such action. Instead, he’d rather see the animals prove his calculations right or wrong. “I’d kind of like to see nature take its course,” he says. “I’d like to see what [population] level they arrive at on their own.”

Mladenoff is concerned, though, about how increasing wolf numbers might affect state politics. “I think, from a wolf standpoint, they’re fine with continuing to expand,” he says. “But there’s definitely more conflict [between wolves and people] happening. There’s been a lot of popular support for wolves over the last decade or so. But there’s a danger of a backlash as we have more conflict.”

Epilogue: Where Wolf?

I am, I suppose, part of the problem. All my opinions about wolves are based on either emotion (as Naughton says, “Wolves are laden with symbolism. There’s something about them that stirs the passions — they’re the quintessential wild animal”) or personal experience. Since I’ve never seen a wild wolf in Wisconsin, I have a hard time thinking of them as anything but scarce. So I went to see Phil Miller.

Miller is a pilot with the DNR, and part of his job is to fly out, once a month or so, in a single-engine, four-seat Cessna airplane to find wolves. He cruises along at a thousand feet above the northwestern part of the state to plot the locations of collared animals.

On a muggy morning in mid-June, Miller took me up into the sky to hunt for wolves. He had a list of a dozen to check up on, and over the course of two and a half hours, we managed to track almost all of them down. But as it was summer, we didn’t actually see a single Wisconsin wolf, though we spotted one of Miller’s targets jogging alone down a red-clay road in Minnesota.

Otherwise, we had no visual evidence of wolves in Wisconsin — until the last animal we checked up on.

In a partially cleared pine wood southwest of Solon Springs, Miller saw a circle of sand with a hole at one end, and the beep was coming straight from the hole.

“I think we’ve got a den,” Miller said. “It’s definitely a den — and there’s a pup standing in it.”

We circled several times, dropping lower on each pass so that Miller could be certain of his sighting before heading away. We left with visual proof of another generation to add to Wisconsin’s lupine population.

But what will become of that generation is still up in the air.

Published in the Fall 2009 issue

Tags: Public service, Research, Science