The gray wolf has been a topic of celebration and controversy in Wisconsin since its return in the 1970s after having been rooted out from the state for several decades.
Many people welcomed the homecoming of an impressive native predator, while others would have preferred to see the wolf stay away.
Such is the case with the Bear Bluff wolf pack in eastern Jackson County. It is a pack “that has crossed the line,” according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials.
Gray wolf numbers have grown surprisingly fast in Wisconsin despite some fluctuations over the years and repeated delisting and listing of the species on the endangered species list. There has been a tug of war between the reality of a growing population and the desire of some groups to retain permanent protection for all wolves.
The species recently was relisted as endangered, but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has begun new petitions to investigate delisting wolves in the Great Lakes Region once again.
The wolf population in Wisconsin before this year’s breeding season was around 700 animals in 185 packs, a number well beyond the original target projections of the DNR.
“The endangered status of the gray wolf is perhaps exacerbating some problems involving the wolf since it limits our flexibility and speed in reacting to those situations,” said Adrian Wydeven, DNR head of the wolf management program.
The Bear Bluff wolf pack in eastern Jackson County has been in the region for 15 years and has had three generations of alpha females and males.
They have attacked a few dogs over the years, but some members of the present pack, apparently including the alpha male, have been causing increased problems this year. They have injured a couple dogs and killed another this summer.
What has been even more disturbing, according to Dick Thiel, education coordinator in the Sandhill Wildlife Area near Babcock, Wis., is the unusual boldness shown by some of the wolves toward people.
One of the dogs, he said, was attacked within a few yards of a home, and another is the first recorded attack on a bird dog in the state. Unlike coyote and bear hunting dogs that have been attacked in the past, dogs accompanying bird hunters stay relatively close to the hunter.
“This pack has crossed the line,” said Thiel, “when it shows such brazen disregard for the presence of people.”
Thiel monitors wolves in this part of the state and had hoped that trying various non-lethal techniques would alter the bad behavior. When those techniques didn’t work, Thiel said, the DNR sent documentation of the wolves’ potential threat to people U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for a variance to the endangered species protection.
Permission was granted to use lethal intervention with the Bear Bluff Pack, and the DNR has engaged the USDA Wildlife Services to trap and euthanize a couple of the wolves from the pack.
The pack then will be monitored to determine if the behavior has improved. If not, more wolves will be culled until the pack behaves more like wild wolves.
There has been a similar problem with another pack in the Park Falls Region this summer. Similar non-lethal actions were attempted, but they failed. Permission for lethal intervention was received, and a couple wolves from the pack were trapped and eliminated.
The behavior continued and seven members of the pack thus far have been removed.
Wydeven and Thiel both hope that culling a couple wolves will solve the problem with the Bear Bluff pack, but further action will be taken until the pack behaves more like wild wolves.
“Our management goals include preserving the wolves and keeping them wild in Wisconsin,” Thiel said.
Both men emphasized that the behavior of these packs is unusual.
“We felt in both these cases that the behavior was so unusual that it was reasonable to remove a few members of each pack in an attempt to make the rest behave in a wild manner again,” Wydeven said.
Normally, he added, wolves are respectful of people and are not anxious to risk their own health by attacking dogs in their territories. In spite of their fearsome reputation, “only 10 percent of the packs are responsible for dog depredation,” Wydeven said.
“Compared to rogue domestic dogs, bears and coyotes,” said Thiel, “our wolves have been unbelievably well-behaved.”