Mourning in Wisconsin for Slain Wolves in an Unjustifiable Hunt

It’s hard to fathom what Wisconsin just did to its endangered wolves.

After a brief but confusing legal fight — where the state’s own Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recommended against a winter hunt that overlaps with the mating season for wolves — state authorities turned loose trophy hunters, hound hunters, and trappers to kill wolves on Monday of this week.

Struggling to survive in a tough winter, where food is often scarce and the cold unrelenting, the wolves didn’t have a chance. With the snow facilitating the tracking, and allowed to hunt at night, to use cruel traps, and even to use packs of hounds to pursue the animals (undoubtedly resulting in something akin to a dogfighting situation), hunters slayed 82 wolves in the opening hours of what was to be a six-day hunt.  The state is shutting down the hunt today because the wolf quota will be met, and almost certainly exceeded.

In the rush to execute the hunt, the DNR set a quota of 200 wolves — 20 percent of the state’s entire wolf population.  But 81 of the 200 tags were allocated to the Ojibwe Tribes who control wildlife management on lands in portions of northern Wisconsin in accordance with treaty rights ceded to the United States in the 1800s.  The Ojibwe consider the wolves their “brothers” and oppose any trophy hunting of the animals.  Like so many other people in Wisconsin, they spoke out against this hunt, as well as the idea of hunting the endangered animals after they were wrongly and illegally removed from the list of federally endangered species by the Trump Administration.  The Ojibwe’s principled action to reduce the killing was the only good news within these serial acts of cruelty to wildlife.

Putting a cap on the total kill is far from a precise matter. The traps are set like landmines for unsuspecting animals and the hunters are deep into the woods and out of the range of communication, and they can easily claim they didn’t get the “stop the hunt” notice before they killed their wolf. It wouldn’t surprise me, once the body count is finally tallied, that the original quota of 200 will be approached.

Is there anything as diabolical as unleashing thousands of trophy hunting and commercial trappers to kill endangered wolves during their breeding season, armed with night-vision equipment, lights, packs of dogs, and steel-jawed leghold traps?

There were 27,000 individuals who sought permits to kill wolves and more than 2,000 were selected by lottery for the dishonor of killing the forebears of our domesticated dogs, animals who live in family groups and who are now experiencing the loss of a parent or sibling or one or more of their offspring.

A set of Republican state lawmakers demanded that the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conduct a winter-killing season. Even the hunter-dominated Natural Resources Board rejected the idea, but a Kansas-based trophy hunting advocacy group called Hunter Nation successfully argued that the Legislature had mandated wolf hunting in the absence of federal protection for wolves and that a hunt must proceed. The DNR appealed that ruling to no avail, putting the agency in charge of implementing a hunt it could not recommend.

Many wolf packs throughout the state have been decimated, for no reason other than groundless vengeance and thrill-killing. Not only will males be killed, but also alpha females now carrying pups, compounding the death toll, and suppressing wolf recovery. “Decimate” is defined as “killing one in every ten of (a group of soldiers or others) as a punishment for the whole group,” and that’s exactly what’s happening here as wolf-haters target the animals out of some unfounded hatred of the species.

Though it is too late for these wolves whose lifeless carcasses may still be warm, the Biden Administration must recognize that Wisconsin is not properly handling its management authority for wolves and jeopardizing their recovery. The United States must seek to have the U.S. District Court in the ongoing federal delisting lawsuit remand this case back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so that it can restore protections for wolves across their range in the northern Great Lakes and much of their other range in the United States avoid a repeat of the savage action that just occurred in northern Wisconsin.

Trophy hunters and ranchers have long been stigmatized the wolf in our culture, and that false framing is designed to enable the sort of exploitation of these family-oriented animals that just played out early this week.

This is not the hunting for food that most people know — nobody eats wolves.  

Wolves pose no danger to people. The occasional killing of farm animals can be effectively managed through non-lethal mitigation measures and selective control; ranchers are made whole through compensation programs. And, in terms of this hunt, this is a not a time when ranchers have cattle out on the range, since there’s little forage during the dead of winter.

In the broadest sense, wildlife professionals widely recognize the wide range of ecological and practical benefits wolves deliver.  Biologists in Yellowstone have found that wolves push deer and elk populations from overgrazed areas, enabling aspen and willow to reclaim ground and restore forest health.

Wolves target weak and ill deer, and scientists have documented that wolves are a bulwark against spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) among cervids.  The state and federal government have spent tens of millions of dollars to check the spread of CWD, while wolves do the work for free.  CWD has spread in areas of Wisconsin outside of the range of wolves.

In a broader sense, wolf predation helps maintain healthy deer populations, lowering the frequency of deer-auto collisions and the prevalence of crop losses. This has the potential to save human lives and tens of millions of dollars for farmers.

This assault on wolves during their breeding season is a dark expression of our worst instincts as a species, it is predicated on outdated mentalities toward wolves, and it is a practical example of precisely why the federal government was well-justified in shielding wolves from vengeful, politically driven actions and listing them as protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, is a two-time New York Times best-selling author.