History of Wolves in Wisconsin

Before Wisconsin was settled in the 1830's, wolves lived throughout the state. Nobody knows how many wolves there were, but best estimates would be 3,000-5,000 animals. Explorers, trappers and settlers transformed Wisconsin's native habitat into farmland, hunted elk and bison to extirpation, and reduced deer populations. As their prey species declined, wolves began to feed on easy-to-capture livestock. As might be expected, this was unpopular among farmers. In response to pressure from farmers, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a state bounty in 1865, offering $5 for every wolf killed. By 1900, no timber wolves existed in the southern two-thirds of the state.

At that time, sport hunting of deer was becoming an economic boost to Wisconsin. To help preserve the dwindling deer population for this purpose, the state supported the elimination of predators like wolves. The wolf bounty was increased to $20 for adults and $10 for pups. The state bounty on wolves persisted until 1957. By the time bounties were lifted, millions of taxpayers' dollars had been spent to kill Wisconsin's wolves, and few wolves were left. By 1960, wolves were declared extirpated from Wisconsin. Ironically, studies have shown that wolves have minimal negative impact on deer populations, since they feed primarily on weak, sick, or disabled individuals.

The story was similar throughout the United States. By 1960, few wolves remained in the lower 48 states (only 350-500  Minnesota and about 20 on Isle Royale in Michigan). In 1974 wolves were given protection under the Endangered Species Act. With protection, the Minnesota wolf population in-creased and several individuals dispersed into northern Wisconsin in the mid-1970s. In 1975, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources declared timber wolves endangered.

Intense monitoring of wolves in Wisconsin by the DNR began in 1979. Attempts were made to capture, attach radio collars and radio-track wolves from most packs in the state. Additional surveys were done by snow-tracking wolf packs in the winter and by howl surveys in the summer. In 1980, 25 wolves in 5 packs occurred in the state, but dropped to 14 in 1985 when parvovirus reduced pup survival and killed adults. Wisconsin DNR completed a wolf recovery plan in 1989. The recovery plan set a state goal for reclassifying wolves as threatened once the population remained at or above 80 for three years. Recovery efforts were based on education, legal protection, habitat protection, and providing compensation for problem wolves.

In the 1990's the wolf population grew rapidly, despite an outbreak of mange between 1992 -1995. The DNR completed a new management plan in 1999. This management plan set a delisting goal of 250 wolves in late winter outside of Indian reservations, and a management goal of 350 wolves outside of Indian reservations. In 1999, wolves were reclassified to state threatened status with 205 wolves in the state. In 2004 wolves were removed from the state threatened species list and were reclassified as a protected wild animal with 373 wolves in the state.

After five years of delisting attempts and subsequent court challenges, a new federal delisting process began on May 5, 2011 and wolves were officially delisted on January 27, 2012. The count in winter 2011 was about 782-824 wolves with 202-203 packs, 19-plus loners, and 31 wolves on Indian reservations in the state. A federal court decision relisted the gray wolf as endangered in December 2014.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approved a Wolf Recovery Plan in 1989. The plan's goal of 80 wolves was first achieved in 1995 mainly through protection and public education programs, and did not require any active reintroductions into the state. In 1999, wolves were reclassified to threatened in Wisconsin, and a new wolf management plan was approved that set a state delisting goal at 250 and management goal at 350 wolves in late winter outside of Indian reservations.

After countless delisting efforts, numerous court challenges and liberal judicial rulings, wolves continue to be federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.  Under this protection, State Wildlife officials are stripped of their authority to manage the population, while the population explodes almost four times of the latest stated goal of the Department of Natural Resources.

Source:  Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Click the link below to read the current U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services wolf recovery plan the sets the population goal of 100 or more wolves in Wisconsin/Michigan for a minimum of five consecutive years.

How many wolves inhabit Wisconsin?  The  2019 - 2020 wolf monitoring reports counts 1034 - 1057 wolves in 256 packs, a 13.1% increase.  Using a new method that has been used in others states for years, the WI winter wolf estimate is 957 - 1573 with the most probable number as measured at the lowest point in the population cycle being 1195.

How many deer do wolves eat?  Check out the link below to review an analysis of the 2015 deer season vs. wolf deer kill by county in the Northern Forest Land

Please click the link below to see the relationship between the White-tailed deer harvest decline and the increase in unmanaged wolf population.