Activists howl for justice for the gray wolf

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

“Heh, heh, heh.” The two men on the HowToHunt video on YouTube sound like Beavis and Butthead when they come across the dead wolf hanging from a log after being caught in a snare they’d placed the day before.

“Happy days,” said one of the men as he hoisted up the animal and grinned for the camera. The wolf was bloody and stiff with rigor mortis, but the fur looked soft.

“Heh, heh, heh,” his friend chortled.

The trappers called the wolf’s death a “suicide.” They had strategically placed the snare on a log stretched over a hole so the wolf would fall after getting caught in the noose.

Death by hanging.

“Once an animal gets its head/body into the wire loop, with every movement the animal makes, the noose tightens around the animal’s neck/body,” said Elizabeth Huntley, a wolf advocate who serves as a spokeswoman for Wisconsin Wolf Front. “You can imagine where this leads to. This is a horrible and agonizing way for an animal to die, and it usually does not happen quickly.”

In Wisconsin, the state-prescribed method of killing a trapped wolf is by firearm — aimed at the head, with a bullet to the brain, or the chest, with a bullet to penetrate the heart or lungs.

Wisconsinites hunted, trapped and killed 257 wolves during the 2013 season that went from Oct. 15 to Dec. 23, and at least 117 during the 2012 season, when the state lost an additional 76 wolves in depredation control, 24 in vehicle collisions, 21 in illegal kills and five from unknown causes.

Some would say that Wisconsin in 2012 legalized the sport of hunting wolves; others say the state sanctioned slaughter.

Regardless of the terminology, after decades of working to bring the wolf population back from near extinction, advocates are facing a new situation: The clearly stated goal of the Republican-led Legislature and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, with endorsements from 18 county boards, is to dramatically reduce the wolf population — to about 350 wolves in time.

To protect or to kill

In the winter of 1979, there were just 25 wolves counted in Wisconsin. Species protection efforts increased that population at a rate of 20 percent in the 1990s and 10–12 percent in the 2000s. Then, to the surprise of many, came a federal delisting for the Great Lakes’ wolves and a rush by politicians in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan to allow hunting the animals beyond the practice of protecting livestock and private property.

“In Wisconsin, wolves were on a trajectory for recovery and protection,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “And then, the state decided to drastically reduce the population. Of the three states — Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan — Wisconsin has the most regressive policies toward wolves. The management plan calls for reducing the population by more than half. It just doesn’t make sense.”

In 2013, for the fourth time since 1985, there was no increase detected in the wolf population from the previous year, according to a DNR news release.

When the 2013 hunting season began, the DNR said there were 809 to 834 wolves in the state, including 215 packs and 15 lone wolves. This was a “late-winter count,” and the DNR said the population presumably would double in the spring, after pups were born, and then decline through the year.

The quota of kills the DNR allowed this past season “could reduce the population by approximately 13 percent, taking all mortality factors into account,” stated DNR carnivore specialist Dave MacFarland, adding that the agency tries “to balance many of the social interests in wolves with the need, and the department’s responsibility, to manage the state’s wolf population.” 

But Greenwald said, “Hunting is a poor management tool for a species like the wolf,” because the species manages itself and is essential for healthy ecosystems. “The removal of top predators is a global problem and it has surprising consequences for ecosystems,” he said. “In the Midwest, for example, there have been widespread declines in ground-nesting birds of all kinds. The removal of top-level predators (such as wolves) has allowed mid-level predators to increase their numbers and their species prey on ground-nesting birds.”

In Wisconsin, a license to “remove” or “harvest” a wolf costs about $50. There’s also the cost of the blaze-orange vest, the bait, the trap, the firearm — which can be a rifle, a shotgun, a pistol or a muzzleloader — and the truck detailing after the kill.

For those new to the so-called “sport,” the DNR offers a course in best management practices for trapping, trapper ethics and responsibilities, trap-setting demonstrations, trapping rules and “respect for people and the animal.”

Yet opponents of wolf hunting ask: How one can respectfully slaughter a wild animal? Consider how a leg-hold or foot-hold trap works: The trap is placed. It catches the animal — sometimes the wild animal, sometimes the domestic stray — by snapping down hard on the bone. Wisconsin trappers are supposed to check traps every 24 hours — by then, the animal most likely has tried to struggle to get free, attempting to chew the caught limb. An animal in a trap that goes unchecked may die of dehydration, starvation or become easy prey.

“The stress a trapped animal endures is nothing short of terrifying,” said Huntley, who described the wolf advocacy movement as “a gathering storm.”

She became involved soon after the delisting of wolves in Wisconsin. “Within a week or two of wolves being delisted from the Endangered Species list in Wisconsin, Gov. Walker signed legislation mandating the hunting of wolves in the state — and part of this legislation includes the use of dogs in wolf hunts,” Huntley said.

Aggressive campaign 

Activists seeking to protect wolves and halt the hunts come from varied backgrounds and interests — animal welfare advocates, environmentalists and good government advocates. They’re conducting a broad, aggressive campaign that involves:

• Circulating petitions to build public awareness.

• Challenging policy at government hearings.

• Delving into state data and records to analyze the science and status of endangered species.

• Protesting a proposal allowing hunters to pursue prey on private property.

• Monitoring grisly Internet posts by hunters and trappers, including accounts of wolves being tortured and dogs dying in training exercises.

• Filing freedom of information requests and trying to analyze correspondence dealing with the wolf advisory.

• Following the money from outdoors groups, gun organizations and individuals to politicians.

• Mapping the ties of right-wing extremists with wolf-hunting. (Examples are on the “Wisconsin Wolf Hunters” Facebook page.)

• Organizing campaigns against anti-wolf politicians, including state Sen. Neal Kedzie, who has locked up in committee a bill to stop using dogs in wolf hunting. Wisconsin is the only state that permits the practice.

“Word is getting out about what’s happening to not only the wolves of this state, but to many other species of wildlife being trophy-hunted, trapped and penned for the purposes of hound-hunting,” Huntley said. “This state is becoming deplorable concerning the preservation of its wildlife and wild lands.”

One activist Huntley works with is Adam Kassulke, also of Wisconsin Wolf Front. As WiG went to press, Kassulke was asking the Wisconsin Conservation Congress to support a moratorium on wolf-hunting until more scientific research could be conducted on the issue.

He said this month also would bring a citizen lobbying effort in the Capitol and the announcement of a new Great Lakes Wolves Coalition, part of a push to unite the somewhat fractured wolf advocacy community.

Wisconsin Wolf Front formed last May, with a focus on political action and educating young people. About 82 percent of the members are students.

With the launch of the coalition, Kassulke wants wolf advocates to hire a lobbyist and to play a role in defeating anti-wolf legislators on Election Day.

Politics over science

In addition to the three Great Lakes states, wolf hunts have taken place in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, where the governor recently signed a bill, despite opposition from conservation groups, to create a $400,000 fund and establish a five-member board to oversee the killing of wolves.

At the same time, the Obama administration is considering “delisting” the wolf at the federal level in the lower 48 states. The Fish and Wildlife Services has proposed removing protections everywhere but Arizona and New Mexico, where just 83 Mexican wolves remain in the wild.

During the comment period that followed the proposal, a million people opposed the proposal — the highest number of submissions ever sent to FWS concerning an endangered species.

More recently, another 460,000 Americans filed comments opposing the “delisting,” and in February an independent scientific peer review unanimously concluded that a federal plan to drop protections for most gray wolves was not based on the best available science.

“Policy decisions about wolves and other wildlife should be based on the best science, not politics,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition.

She said there were once up to 2 million gray wolves in North America, but they were slaughtered to near-extinction by the early 1900s. Recovery programs helped wolf populations in some parts of the country rebound. Still, there only about 5,500 wolves in the continental United States and wolves occupy just 5 percent of their historic range in the lower 48.

If the federal delisting takes place, hunts like those taking place in the Great Lakes region and the Rocky Mountain states could take place elsewhere.

“After the federal government prematurely gave up its duty to protect wolves, the states of Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming all rushed to hold hunting and trapping seasons,” said Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States. “Thousands of wolves have been barbarically killed over bait, with hounds and cable neck snares. The (FWS) proposal puts politics over its (conservation) obligations “

Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series on wolves and the dispute over endangered species protections for the animals.

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