Wisconsin’s annual winter wolf survey found an estimated 880 wolves were roaming the state earlier this year, up 16 percent from 2015 and the most wolves ever counted in the state in modern times.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported Thursday that there were an estimated 222 packs and more than 30 lone wolves roaming the forested parts of the state.
By far the most wolf packs, and most wolves, are concentrated in Douglas, Bayfield and Ashland counties. But wolves also are moving into new areas, said David MacFarland, DNR large carnivore specialist.
“We’re seeing both more packs (in traditional wolf areas) and more wolves moving into new areas,” MacFarland told the News Tribune.
It’s not clear, MacFarland said, how high the state’s wolf population may go with hunting and trapping on hold.
“At some point there will be a limiting factor, whether it’s habitat or prey or tolerance by people or something else… But we haven’t seen that yet. I’m not sure how high that would be,” he said.
Wolf surveys are taken in winter at the low point in the animal’s population. New pups born this spring will have significantly added to that number, but many also will perish in coming months, bringing the population back down.
It’s the second straight year of significant increase in Wisconsin’s wolf numbers — now nearly 30 percent over two years — after a federal court order banning wolf hunting and trapping in the western Great Lakes that was imposed in December 2014.
That court order is being challenged, and lawmakers have threatened to pass federal legislation allowing hunting and trapping in the region. But those efforts so far have slowed, and wolves remain off-limits under Endangered Species Act protections.
Wolves were fair game to hunting and trapping in Minnesota and Wisconsin from 2012 through the autumn of 2014, with hundreds of wolves taken each year, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said their numbers had recovered more than enough to remove them from four decades of federal protections.
But a federal judge sided with wolf supporters who argued state wildlife agencies were allowing too much wolf killing too fast, and that excessive hunting and trapping could put the animals back into the same danger of extinction they were in when they were listed as endangered in the 1970s.
The current population is more than double Wisconsin’s official goal for its wolf population of 350.
The winter wolf survey was conducted thanks to the help of more than 100 volunteers, DNR officials noted.
Wisconsin’s native wolf population was strong until the predators were shot, trapped and poisoned into extirpation by the mid-1900s. Under federal protections, the animals began to trickle back into northern Wisconsin from Minnesota in the late 1970s. Their numbers have slowly increased to today’s record high.
MacFarland said reports of wolves killing livestock, pets and hunting hounds have increased some since wolves went back under federal protections, “but they aren’t up to the levels they were before we had state management.” He said state and federal wildlife officials are working with farmers and have had some success using electric fencing with flags to deter wolves from entering livestock areas.
Minnesota’s wolf population remains generally stable, although wolves are having to roam farther to find their favorite food, the Department of Natural Resources reported after its most recent wolf population estimate made last year. The Minnesota DNR said the 2015 survey showed an estimated 2,221 wolves in 374 packs across the northern half of the state. That’s down about 8 percent from the 2014 estimate but close enough to call stable, the agency noted.