Wisconsin DNR board refuses to set early wolf hunt

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The state Department of Natural Resources policy board narrowly refused Republican legislators' request Friday to implement a wolf hunt immediately, citing concerns that the department can't move that fast and Wisconsin's Native American tribes haven't been consulted as per treaty rights.

The decision marks a setback for farmers who say they've been struggling with wolves preying on their livestock for years. Ryan Klussendorf, a Medford dairy farmer, told the board before it made its decision that wolves have been preying on his livestock for a decade and have started stalking children at bus stops. He said he’s tired of listening to people from urban settings like Madison and Milwaukee talk about wolves’ beauty and the harmony of nature while he’s living a “daily nightmare.”

“The natural world is brutal and less than picturesque,” he said. “It’s time to set this hunt now.”

Then-President Barack Obama's administration delisted Great Lakes wolves in late 2011. Republican legislators passed a law the next spring requiring the DNR to hold a hunt every fall. The department ran three hunts from 2012 to 2014 before a federal judge put the animals back on the endangered species list.

Former President Donald Trump's administration removed them from the list earlier this month. DNR officials had said in December they planned to resume a hunt in November. That wasn't soon enough for a group of GOP lawmakers led by Sen. Rob Stafsholt and Treig Pronschinske; they sent the DNR board a letter on Jan. 15 d emanding the department launch a hunt right now.

According to department estimates, the number of wolves in the state has grown from 815 in 2012 to 1,034 last year. The DNR estimates 256 packs roamed the state in 2020. The agency paid out $2.7 million in wolf depredation payments between 1985 and 2020, with $1.8 million of that paid out from 2011 through last year.

The Republican request tore the scab off one of the most contentious environmental conflicts Wisconsin has faced in the last 25 years. Nearly 50 people spoke at Friday's board meeting. Another 1,400 submitted written comments.

Supporters of an early hunt argued that the wolf population now stands at about 1,000 animals, three times the DNR's goal of 350 wolves statewide, and they're wreaking havoc on livestock and pets. Wildlife enthusiasts renewed arguments that the wolf is simply too beautiful to kill. Representatives from Native American tribes with reservations in Wisconsin said they consider the wolf sacred.

DNR Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs told the board that a hunt has already been scheduled for November and the department needs time to gather input, collect scientific data and set quotas.

“We do not believe this is an emergency nor does it require (board) action today,” Ambs said.

At first it appeared a majority of the board was determined to move ahead with an early hunt. Several members brushed aside the department's arguments, saying the science hasn't changed in six years and the agency knew the Trump administration was going to delist wolves and should have been preparing to start a hunt immediately.

“The department has had three years to work on this, most recently this past year, and elected not to," board member Terry Hilgenberg said. “That’s on the department. Our board has a responsibility to represent our constituents. The wolf issue in northern Wisconsin has been devastating . . . I think we’ve got to move forward here.”

Greg Kazmierski authored a motion that called for starting the hunt by Feb. 10 and using quotas from the 2014 hunt. But he lost momentum after DNR attorney Cheryl Heilman pointed out that he was setting quotas without consulting the state's tribes as required by a 1983 federal court ruling. The ruling clarified treaties Ojibwe tribes signed in the 1800s ceding a huge swath of northern Wisconsin to the state.

“It is what it is,” said board Chairman Frederick Prehn. “We are in a situation on the 22nd of January where apparently the tribes have not been consulted properly."

The board voted 4-3 to reject Kazmierski's motion and then adjourned without any further remarks about the hunt.

Messages left for Stafsholt and Pronschinske at their Capitol offices weren't immediately returned. A message left with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents 11 Ojibwe tribes that signed the treaties in the 1800s, also wasn't immediately returned.

___

Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

___

This story was first published Jan. 22, 2021. It was updated Jan. 25, 2021, to correct the spelling of state Rep. Treig Pronschinske’s first name. It also corrected the title of Department of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs.