Wisconsin wolf population shows 14% decline, DNR says

Wisconsin’s gray wolf population was estimated at 972 last winter, a 14% year-over-year decline, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

The number of wolf packs also decreased from 292 in 2020-21 to 288 in 2021-22 and the average pack size decreased from 3.8 to 3.2, respectively.

The data, released Wednesday at the Natural Resources Council meeting in Ashland, provides the first look at the state’s wolf population since a February 2021 hunting and trapping season killed 218 wolves.

Subsequent litigation in Dane County suspended a wolf season scheduled for fall 2021, and a federal lawsuit resulted in the wolf’s return to Endangered Species Act protection in February 2022.

As a result, the DNR was able to conduct an uninterrupted full winter of monitoring and data collection for the 2021-22 population estimate, according to DNR large carnivore specialist Randy Johnson.

The wolf population estimate is derived from a statistical calculation called the pack occupancy model. The DNR converted to the model in 2020; from 1979 to 2019 he used a minimum number of wolves.

A DNR chart shows a graph of wolf population and wolf pack numbers in Wisconsin from 2000 to 2022.

Wolf population decline expected since Wisconsin held hunting and trapping season

Data inputs for the model include winter monitoring survey reports, information from wolves fitted with GPS to estimate the area occupied by wolf packs, average pack territory size, and average pack size. area-specific winter packs.

About 500 surveys over 16,779 miles were completed last winter, according to the DNR.

Johnson thanked the volunteers, tribal members and MNR staff who helped with the work, which resulted in the third-highest number of miles driven since 2000.

The average wolf pack territory in Wisconsin last winter was 66 square miles, according to the report.

The declines noted in the 2021-22 wolf report can be attributed to the February 2021 hunting and trapping season, Johnson said.

A similar response in the wolf population was seen the only other time the state hosted wolf hunting and trapping seasons, from 2012 to 2014.

State-licensed hunters and trappers killed 83% more than their allocated quota during the February 2021 season. The season was unprecedented in time, as it took place during the breeding season wolves and included the taking of pregnant females.

Accordingly, the declines detailed in the 2021-22 Winter Wolf report were expected.

A DNR slide shows the winter 2021-2022 wolf population estimate of 972 gray wolves in Wisconsin and a map of observed wolf packs.

However, the wolf population remains strong, Johnson said.

“Even in areas where there was a concentrated harvest, we still see packs of wolves generally occupying the same areas,” Johnson said. “Have there been any local changes? Absolutely possible.”

Johnson also said action by US Department of Agriculture trappers in 2021 to eliminate wolves around farms where livestock had been killed resulted in a 40% reduction in depredation this year.

Wisconsin’s wolf management plan hasn’t changed in 23 years

The department has yet to update the state’s wolf management plan. The current plan was drafted in 1999 and slightly modified in 2007.

Opinions on wolf management have historically varied widely among Wisconsin citizens. The results of a social science survey of public attitudes towards wolves conducted by the DNR earlier this year have not been released.

It’s also unclear when a draft of the new plan will be released for public review; several previously announced target dates have passed.

But the state’s wolf population is ‘healthy’ and ‘biologically safe’

Overall, Johnson gave a positive review of the state’s wolf population.

“Despite the observed decline in wolf abundance (over the past year), there are several indicators that Wisconsin’s wolf population is healthy and biologically secure in the state, such as pack distribution and the number of packs,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the agency is committed to maintaining a sustainable and healthy wolf population in the future. Work will continue and will include extensive population monitoring.

Following a February 10 federal court ruling, gray wolves are listed as an endangered species in the lower 48 states (excluding the northern Rocky Mountain region). As such, wolves are federally protected.

Control of harvesting and lethal depredation is prohibited. It is illegal to shoot a wolf unless there is an immediate threat to human safety.

A full report on Wisconsin wolf management, including the 2021-22 population estimate, is expected to be posted on the MNR website in the near future.