Roughly 43 years ago, wildlife biologists detected evidence of breeding wolves in the state for the first time in decades. At that time, wolves had been considered extirpated from the state since 1960, and the only gray wolves remaining in the lower 48 were found in northeastern Minnesota. Today, there is a stable population distributed throughout northern and central Wisconsin.
This week is Wolf Awareness Week, seven days focused on raising awareness about wolves through education. The Timber Wolf Alliance of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute of Northland College is hosting multiple educational events and as someone who spends a lot of his time thinking about, teaching and talking about wolves, I’d encourage you to attend one of them.
For Wolf Awareness Week, I offer a very truncated (i.e., wolves coexisted with native people for thousands of years prior to European colonization) and simplistic (i.e., there is much more to this story) history of wolves in Wisconsin.
This history is one centered around ourselves and how we have changed and struggled over how we, as a society, should interact with this species.
Wolves were widespread throughout Wisconsin prior to European colonization, but widespread persecution and incentivized killing of wolves via bounty programs had driven wolf populations towards extirpation.
As wolves disappeared from the Wisconsin landscape, however, public attitudes towards wolves began to shift. In the 1930s, a shift in thinking, spurred by the likes of Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson, and others, led to a greater appreciation of predators and their role in ecosystems, and by 1957, with only the scattered remnants of a wolf population, Wisconsin ended the bounty on wolves.
In 1974, wolves were added to the list of endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act and by 1977 breeding wolf packs were detected in the state.
Forty years ago, in the winter of 1979-80, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources initiated its formal wolf monitoring program. The wolf population struggled for those first ten years, and in 1989, the Wisconsin DNR developed a state recovery plan for wolves. Also, during this time, educational programs, like the Timber Wolf Alliance, were ramping up efforts to provide educational programs on the biology and ecology of wolves.
By the 1990s, the wolf population began to grow in number and distribution within the state. Over time, some farmers, hound hunters, and pet owners experienced conflict with wolves. Wolves eventually met both state and federal biological recovery criteria, and between 2003 and present, wolf status under the Endangered Species Act oscillated, and with it, state management authority.
In 2012, when the state had full management authority, the state legislature passed a bill listing the wolf as a game species and established a regulated harvest season – which occurred from 2012 to 2014. This legislated wolf harvest was criticized by some as being more aggressive than necessary. In December 2014, a federal court case relisted wolves as a federally endangered species. After relisting, the wolf population initially started to grow, but appears to have stabilized more recently.
This history and all of its nuances dance around my mind when I take my students out to howl for wolves. Standing on backroads in the dark, howling to the beautiful night sky, waiting, hoping for a response. Coyotes, dogs, ruffed grouse, owls, all entertain. But sharing in the awe of a howling wolf is always reinvigorating.
Reflecting on these experiences and what they must mean, I have realized, that, for my students – there have always been wolves in Wisconsin. In fact, I am among the first generations of Wisconsin citizens to have grown up in a Wisconsin that ‘always’ had wolves. And that my parents’ generation were among the first, to have grown-up in a wolf-less Wisconsin – and, importantly, allowed the species to eventually recover.
The wolf is a species that elicits many emotions. President Teddy Roosevelt described the wolf as, “the archetype of ravin.” Many Ojibwe view the wolf, ma’iingan, as a brother. Some hunters view wolves as competition for wild prey and some livestock owners view wolves as a threat to their livelihood. Some view wolves as a symbol of the wilderness and others just enjoy knowing that they are out there.
As we look back on our relationship with this species let us not only look to better understand one another, but also this species that, as Dave Mech wrote, “is neither a saint nor a sinner…”, rather, just another species trying to maintain a positive energy balance.
Erik Olson is an associate professor of natural resources at Northland College. He will be part of a panel discussion Wednesday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. For a full schedule visit Timber Wolf Alliance.