Science Prevailed in Contentious Wolf Debate

After an extremely contentious, three-year fight over wolf management in Wisconsin, science and wolf conservationists have prevailed. Last Wednesday, Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board (NRB) approved a Wolf Management Plan and a Wolf Hunting Rule that contains major victories, including:

  • Recognition of the ecological and cultural importance of wolves, including biodiversity, forest health, and public support for Wisconsin’s wolves.  
  • Adaptive Management instead of an arbitrary, numeric population goal. This is a best practice that was supported by numerous scientists and is in line with most natural resource management in Wisconsin. 
  • New zones and subzones with tags that are zone-specific. (In the 2021 hunt here, tags were issued for any zone in the state, so as zones closed, people would just move to any open zone, leading to a cascading amount of pressure all at the same time. That will not be allowed now.) 
  • Where requested, "low quota" subzones were created that extend around 6 miles around their reservation land to help protect reservation wolf packs
  • The registration time to report a wolf kill is now 8 hours (in the past, a 24 hour period led to excessive quota exceedances) 
  • The time allowed for hound training on wolves has been restricted - It will run only during the time a harvest zone is open for hunting. And hound training will close as the respective zone closes to hunting. Previously this was open 365 days a year. Additionally, hunters are not allowed to use hounds at night. 
  • The plan outlines the strategies related to increasing public education related to the implementation of non-lethal conflict deterrent techniques.

During the public comment period, many wolf and environmental groups, science advocates, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, and many individual Tribes supported the plan. The debate was multi-layered and complicated, with several different elements, so it’s important to take a step back and remember where we were three years ago. 

Where we came from: 
In February of 2021, a local judge forced a wolf hunt in the middle of wolf breeding season. In less than three days, trophy hunters wiped out a third of our wolf population. It was a devastating and dark time in Wisconsin.  Immediately, hundreds of Sierra Club members contacted the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) calling on them to center science and Tribal consent in wolf management in Wisconsin. 

A lawsuit later that year put a moratorium on wolf hunting in Wisconsin, and Sierra Club and other groups won a suit to have wolves relisted on the Endangered Species List in early 2022. This bought some much needed time but what followed was a very contentious fight.. Trophy hunting groups called for a population cap of 350 wolves (wanting to wipe out ⅔ of our wolf population). Their aggressive campaign led to legislative proposals and dozens of counties passing resolutions supporting the cap. We defeated that horrible narrative by advocating for a plan that centers the latest science by using adaptive wolf management, not an arbitrary population goal, and certainly not one as ridiculous as 350 wolves. 

Adding to this low point in Wisconsin’s history, a leader on the NRB called for the state to ignore the Tribe’s undeniable, court-affirmed share of the wolf quota. The new plan respects Tribal authority, the Tribe’s portion of the quota, and contains ‘subzones’ around Tribal reservations at their request. 

How we won:
This campaign was a demonstration of what makes the Sierra Club powerful.  The combination of policy
analysis, grassroots pressure and advocacy, regulatory engagement, and media allowed us to secure such a critical win.  Some highlights from our work:

  • We had the opportunity to be on the Wolf Stakeholder Committee to ensure science and Tribal input remained the focus of the conservation
  • Our educational work, included the annual Wolf Awareness Week helped correct misinformation and likely influenced the public attitudes survey conducted in 2022 
  • Over the past two years we have mobilized thousands of comments on the new wolf plan and rule - providing talking points, pre-drafted emails and updates! In the latest comment period, Sierra Club members were over a quarter of all comments received! 
  • We have built positive relationships with the DNR & NRB that have positioned us as credible partners which will only benefit us moving forward.

What’s Next:
The elephant in the room continues to be Act 169, the Wisconsin law that requires a wolf hunt, regardless of the science or Tribal input, as long as wolves are not protected by the Endangered Species Act.  Unfortunately, the plan and rule calls for a hunt, and allows hounding, baiting, trapping and electronic predator calling, as required by the law.  We need to get Act 169 repealed if we want sustainable wolf management in Wisconsin. 

This came after another fantastic Wolf Awareness Week. Check out all of our activities here.


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