MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin wildlife officials defended their decision not to set a hard cap on the state's wolf population in their new management plan in front of a Republican-controlled legislative committee Thursday, saying a firm limit doesn't reflect the complexities of wolf management.
Randy Johnson, the Department of Natural Resources' large carnivore specialist, told the state Senate's sporting heritage committee that a lack of a hard limit gives the agency more flexibility to manage the species, allows local packs to fluctuate and gives the population a better chance at maintaining wolf abundance for years to come.
"The plan recommends adjusting management actions in response to observed real-world conditions," Johnson said.
His remarks came during a hearing on a Republican bill that would force the DNR to set a firm numeric goal in the new plan. Hunting advocates lined up in support of the bill, complaining that the lack of a goal leaves both wolves and people unprotected.
“It’s a pretty reasonable plan, but it has left the door wide open. It doesn’t say where it ends or where it begins,” Luke Withrow, vice president of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association. “Most people do not care if there are wolves in Wisconsin … but you shouldn’t see one every day. It should be that special thing that exists in northern Wisconsin. They shouldn’t be chasing your cattle ... and coming into school playgrounds.”
Wolf population levels have been one of the most contentious outdoor issues Wisconsin has faced in the last 30 years. Farmers across northern Wisconsin complain annually about wolf attacks on their livestock as the species has regained a foothold in the state. Hunters are eager to kill them. Animal rights advocates insist the population is too fragile to support hunting.
The DNR adopted a management plan in 1999 that calls for limiting the population to 350 animals. The latest DNR estimates, though, put the population at around 1,000 animals. Hunters and farmers have pointed to the 350 number as justification for setting high kill quotas.
Wisconsin law mandates that the DNR hold an annual wolf hunt. Gray wolves are currently listed on the federal endangered species list, making hunting illegal. The DNR has been working to update its management plan in case wolves are delisted and hunting resumes in the state.
The new plan recommends a statewide population of about 1,000 animals. If the number of wolves falls below 799, wildlife officials should look to grow the statewide population, according to the plan. If the population stands at 800 to 999 wolves, the population could grow or be considered stable. If the population stands at between 1,000 and 1,199 wolves, the population would be considered stable or could be reduced. If the number of animals grows to 1,200 or more, the population should be reduced. The DNR's board is set to vote on the plan in October.
Sen. Rob Stafsholt and Rep. Chanz Green have introduced a bill in March that would force the DNR to set a numeric population goal. The bill doesn't set a goal, instead leaving it up to the DNR to determine it. The hearing was a parade of hunting advocates like Withrow, all calling for a hard limit.
Tim Fiocchi, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, urged the committee to amend the bill to set the goal at 350 wolves. He said the new plan as currently drafted is too ambiguous. George Meyer, a Wisconsin Wildlife Federation board member, echoed him, saying no hard number will lead to endless debate over what population levels are sustainable.
The DNR's Johnson countered that a hard population target is ineffective and doesn't take into account local pockets and how the tolerance of wolves varies across the state. He called the new plan “practical.”
The committee adjourned without voting on the bill.