Research reveals pendulum swings
have negative impacts

Assistant Professor of Natural Resources Erik Olson grew up in northern Wisconsin hunting, fishing, and hanging out at his family’s sugarbush. He paddled rivers, hiked trails, and watched the night sky.

“That’s why I’m in this field, my strong love of the outdoors,” he said. “That and curiosity.”

Olson’s curiosities range from studying the ecology of Eurasian milfoil in northern Wisconsin to lemurs in Madagascar, but the subject that has captured his heart, mind, and time: grey wolves. More specifically wolf and human interactions and conflicts.

Olson has had three research papers published in the past year and has one currently under review—three on wolves and one on Eurasian milfoil. He teaches wolf ecology and management courses, and is providing faculty support to the Timber Wolf Alliance.

Olson’s interest took hold as an undergraduate at UW-Stevens Point where he learned an intriguing and important lesson: scientists don’t know everything. “That’s what led me into natural resources—I wanted to answer some of those unanswered questions.”

He graduated and worked in several wildlife technician positions and then as a natural resource specialist at Lac Courte Oreilles Community College, doing research on aquatic plants and the American marten, as well as outreach and education. Once he “hit the limits” of his own knowledge, he decided to continue his education with a graduate degree.

With his aquatic plant data in tow, Olson headed to UW-Madison and turned the analysis of the data into graduate work. As a PhD candidate, he collaborated with colleagues on lemur research. Then a professor invited him to participate in wolf research.

First, Olson examined conflicts between wolves and bear-hunting hounds. On another project he explored white-tailed deer anti-predator behaviors in relation to wolves and other predators. However, as his research progressed he became more interested in human-to-human conflicts over wolf management.

In an open-access article published in Conservation Letters (a journal of the Society for Conservation Biology), Olson and seven colleagues examined the implications of human conflict over wolf management in Wisconsin from 1999-2011—a period of relatively intense conflict.

With Olson as the lead author, the paper argues that the pendulum swings in wolf management have led to conflict, poaching, and a legislated wolf hunt. The research provides the first demonstrated link between illegal wildlife killing and the lack of authority of regional resource managers under the Endangered Species Act.

The research also suggests that illegal behavior may be moderated with responsible and effective wildlife management programs.

“Mutual cooperation and a focus on conflict resolution—among all stakeholders—is needed for effective, long term management, and we currently don’t have it.”

Instead, what Olson and colleagues say exists is a system of “perceived winners and losers,” as wolf management authority swings from state to federal control. In reality, Olson says, “It may actually be a lose-lose situation.”

According to Olson, their research suggests that inconsistency in wolf management “may not be good for wolves or local people living with wolves.”

Meaningful management for wolves and humans needs ownership from all stakeholders. “The only way we will ever get close to a compromise or a win-win scenario is if we start seeing wolf management as a shared issue,” Olson said.

Data shows that during the period under study—1999-2011—more wolves were killed illegally when the state lost management authority to kill wolves attacking livestock or pets near homes. Why? “Because state managers aren’t able to respond to conflicts,” Olson said. “And people get frustrated and take matters into their own hands, which isn’t good for wolf conservation efforts or society at large.”

The researchers advocate for a “slow transition” from federal protection to state management rather than going from full protection to a game species or vice versa—overnight.

They also recommend that states avoid prescriptive harvest legislation. The Wisconsin state legislature prescribed many aspects of the wolf harvest via legislation rather than through the traditional rule-making processes of the Department of Natural Resources. Shortly after the wolf harvest bill was signed to law, two court cases were brought forth—one regarding the use of dogs for hunting wolves and one regarding the federal status of the wolf under the Endangered Species Act.

“Otherwise, we will continue swinging back and forth between these extremes,” Olson said.

After three years of a prescriptive hunt in Wisconsin, a federal ruling placed Great Lakes wolves back on the endangered species list in January—the outcome of the aforementioned court case challenging wolf delisting in the region. If the past is any indicator of the present, “there will be more to this story and hopefully we, as a society, can figure out a way to meet in the middle to address issues of wolf management in a collaborative fashion.”

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