From the time Europeans arrived in North America, some of them made a practice of killing wolves. Some 2 million wolves once ranged across the continent, but incessant slaughter, with guns, traps and poison, came uncomfortably close to eradicating them. By 1965, they had almost entirely disappeared from the upper Midwest. That might have been fine with many of our forebears, including Theodore Roosevelt, who called the species “the beast of waste and desolation.”
Restoring the gray wolf to this part of America was a long and difficult but ultimately successful mission. There now are hundreds in Michigan and more than 2,000 in Minnesota. As of last year, there were more than 1,000 in Wisconsin. To nature lovers, this sounds like nothing but good news. But to those who regard wolves with fear and loathing, it’s just the opposite — and that group had its way last month in Wisconsin.
In its final days, the Trump administration removed gray wolves from the list of endangered species protected under federal law. It was a dubious decision, given they number just 6,000 in the lower 48 states and are still absent from the vast majority of their historic range. The delisting opened the door to travesties of the kind seen last month in Wisconsin.
Under an unusual state law, Wisconsin was required to allow a wolf hunting season once the animal was taken off the protected list. The Department of Natural Resources wanted to postpone the hunt until November to give it time to determine a sensible quota and confer with Native American tribes, which regard the wolves with reverence. But a lawsuit by an out-of-state group, Hunter Nation, prevailed in court to force the agency to allow the hunt in February — during the animals’ mating season, when they are particularly vulnerable.
The hunt unleashed a frenzy of killing with most hunters using dogs and some using snowmobiles. The state set a quota of 119 wolves for hunters obtaining permits and 81 for Native American tribes. The tribes chose not to use theirs — but the other hunters vastly exceeded their limit, liquidating at least 216 and prompting the DNR to stop the hunt in less than three days instead of the seven originally planned.
Adrian Treves, an environmental studies professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and founder of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab, estimates that another 115 were likely killed by poachers. That would mean a third of the state’s wolves were wiped out in under 60 hours. “There’s a very real risk that we are jeopardizing the stability of our wolf population across the state,” he said in an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio.
Those defending the hunt insist that wolves are a menace to livestock and therefore must be kept to a minimum. But there were only 86 instances of such wolf predation last year in Wisconsin — a minuscule number in a state with 3.45 million beef cattle, 75,000 sheep, 72,000 goats and 179,000 horses. The owners of livestock killed by wolves are entitled to compensation from the state, which last year paid out $1.8 million.
Proud hunters used social media to post photos of wolf carcasses piled up like firewood. But they clearly have shot themselves in the foot. The Biden administration was already considering whether to restore the gray wolf’s federal protection from hunting. The Wisconsin hunt makes a powerful argument to do just that.