Grey wolves are recovering, but it is difficult for them to survive.

 After grey wolf populations increased in the United States, they were removed from the Endangered Species List, making them eligible for more hunting, igniting a new debate about how the controversial animals will recover.

Northern Wisconsin gray wolf Arndt, Linda Freshwaters/Alamy
Northern Wisconsin gray wolf Arndt, Linda Freshwaters/Alamy

The latest census of grey wolves in Wisconsin shows that populations have dipped slightly following what some have described as a "disastrous" hunting season intended to cull the recently recovered population. The 2021 wolf census estimated that there were approximately 1126 wolves in Wisconsin, but this year's report estimates that number to be closer to 972 wolves, representing a roughly 9% decrease.

Residents in the state are divided over whether grey wolf populations have recovered sufficiently to remove federal protections, or whether they should be protected under the US Endangered Species Act.

Grey wolves (Canis lupus) were once common across North America until hunting drove them nearly extinct in the mid-1900s. Since receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the canines have slowly spread from Canada into pockets of the western United States.

When a species' population is deemed to be recovered, it is removed from the Endangered Species List, also known as "de-listing." Despite a long-term increase in population, grey wolves have been on a "roller coaster of clarification changes" over the last two decades, according to Adrian Treves of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the last 20 years, the wolves have been re-listed and de-listed more than a dozen times, with the most recent re-listing in February.

"Wolves bring to light some of the underlying issues that remain unresolved in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act," says Carlos Carroll of the Klamath Center for Conservation Research. "It is not enough to simply save species from extinction. It's also important to consider how widely distributed they are."

Strict hunting regulations have allowed Wisconsin's grey wolf population to rebound from a few dozen individuals in the 1980s to over 900 wolves today, and over 7000 nationally. Because the state has few wilderness areas, the increase in wolf populations causes them to come into contact with people and livestock more frequently.

Though wolves now occupy a fraction of their former range, some people, particularly those who want to protect domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle from predation, believe the wolf population is stable enough to allow some of them to be hunted.

Wisconsin held a single, disastrous wolf hunt during the most recent period that grey wolves were off the Endangered Species List, from October 2020 to February 2022. The state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which decides how many wolves can be killed based on the most recent population models, has set a limit of 119 individuals. In less than three days in February 2021, hunters killed an estimated 218 wolves.

The Ojibwe Tribes of Wisconsin were allotted 81 kills but held off after non-native hunters exceeded their quota. Six of the tribes signed a letter opposing the wolf's de-listing in April of this year. "Wisconsin has already demonstrated its inability to properly manage the state's wolf population," the tribes wrote. "This legislation would ensure another brutal hunt for this keystone species."

A bill proposed in March pushed for the wolves to be removed from the Endangered Species List, allowing the species to be hunted again. Some argue that the current population is too vulnerable to survive hunting, while others advocate for the state to completely eradicate wolves.

A study published this year found that another hunt of the same size as the one in autumn 2021 would have pushed wolf populations in the state below 250 individuals, the threshold that requires the species to be re-listed.

However, there are some disadvantages to allowing wolf populations to recover. Last year, Wisconsin reported nearly 80 likely or confirmed wolf attacks on livestock and pets, costing ranchers tens of thousands of dollars in compensation.

Nonetheless, there are economic reasons to keep wolves around. Because canines eat the abundant white-tailed deer in the state, diseases carried by the deer, such as Lyme disease, may spread more slowly. A 2021 study discovered that the presence of wolves reduced deer-vehicle collisions by nearly 25%, saving the state over $10 million per year. According to the same study, the economic benefit of wolves is 63 times greater than the cost of compensating farmers or ranchers for wolf predation on their livestock.

However, scientific evidence of a species' recovery, not political or social pressures, is the only factor that can determine a species' status on or off the Endangered Species List. "Science can tell us a lot of things, but it can't tell us what we're trying to accomplish," Jennifer Price Tack of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says.

The fundamental question of how grey wolves will recover remains unanswered. Wisconsin's Wolf Management Plan from 1999 sets a goal of keeping at least 350 wolves in the state, excluding animals on tribally owned land. If the latest de-listing bill is passed, the state will have to decide how many grey wolves to protect and how many to release to hunters.

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