Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Not the hunters in Wisconsin, apparently. In the state’s first wolf hunt since 2014, the harvest quota for the entire state was doubled in just three days, with 216 wolves killed despite a planned harvest quota of only 119 animals. This 60-hour blitz on Wisconsin wolves is remarkable considering the wolf is one of the wariest and most challenging game animals. It’s also caused an outcry among both hunters and non-hunters alike. The hunt’s incredible success has dragged numerous questions into light, including whether the 2021 Wisconsin wolf hunting season was necessary and whether it will be so in the future, or if it was propelled forward by old fears and a constantly shifting political landscape.
The wolf serves as the villain in almost every European fairy tale, which means people’s trepidation about wolves develops from childhood. In the 1950s, gray wolves—which are a native species to Wisconsin—were nearly eradicated due entirely to unregulated hunting. Wolf hunts in Wisconsin were introduced during a time when wolves were thought of as violent and unrelenting predators that would maim and kill everything from livestock and pets to any human unlucky enough to cross paths with them. These beliefs have been long held, developing from some actual events, but mostly from the inherent fears humanity cultivates about the animals.
Whether our collective fear of the wolf is valid or not, wolves still play a vital role in a healthy ecosystem and are considered a sacred animal by many Native American tribes. The development of understanding about the wolf’s role in the ecosystem and the unregulated slaughter of the animals caused the United States government to place the gray wolf in the Lower 48 under strict protections. In 1973 the Federal Endangered Species Act made wolves an untouchable species for hunters, helping the population of the Wisconsin wolves to come back from the brink of extinction.
The new protection was so efficient that populations of wolves across the entire United States rebounded, growing from fewer than 1,000 animals in the 1970s to the well beyond 6,000 animals populating the country today. This increase in population, and demand for the right to hunt them, led to wolves being removed from the endangered species list by the Obama Administration in 2012. Wisconsin immediately responded to this new development by holding a 2012 wolf season in their state for the first time in more than 30 years to control their growing population. From 2012 to 2014, hunters in the state harvested a total of 528 wolves before politicians changed their minds and returned the animals to what had become the revolving door of the endangered species list. In October 2020, the Trump administration once again removed gray wolves from the list and, once again, Wisconsin hunters headed to the woods for a 2021 wolf hunt. However, Wisconsin wildlife officials who set the 119-animal harvest quota could never have predicted just how incredibly efficient the Wisconsin wolf hunters would be thanks to a change in their plans.
The state officially planned the hunt for November 2021, but a lawsuit from Hunter Nation, a hunting advocacy group, forced their hand. Hunter Nation advocated for the hunt to be held immediately, as Wisconsin still maintains the law requiring a yearly wolf hunt if the animal is not on the endangered species list. They filed a lawsuit, accusing state officials of delaying the hunt so the animal could be placed back under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Courts ruled in favor of Hunter Nation on February 12th and the Wisconsin wolf season was held almost immediately that month.
The hunt being held in February, as opposed to other wolf hunts in the past that had been held in the fall, had a drastic effect on the hunt itself. Late winter is breeding season for the wolf, making the animals particularly active and therefore vulnerable. At the start of the hunt, it was estimated that there were around 1,200 wolves in the state of Wisconsin, so around 4,000 tags were given out for a one-week hunt with 119 animals allocated for harvest. However, the late winter hunting time, with the excellent snow conditions and active wolves, enabled hunters’ tracking and trapping the animals, as well as those using hounds (something normally illegal in the fall due to deer season), to be incredibly successful. They doubled the wolf kill quota before the state had time to close the season. It took just three days for hunters to take the 216 wolves, which is incredible when compared to the 2014 autumn hunt, where it took more than two months to harvest 100 animals. This shows the incredible difference the change in the time of year had on hunter efficacy. Very little is known how this will affect the state’s wolf population for the future, but many now fear that it will lead to a severe drop in population and a return to federal protection for the animals.
The results of Wisconsin’s 2021 wolf hunt have led many to question the legitimacy of hunting wolves in general. Even with the population rebound, the number of wolves in the state is fairly low when compared to the number seen at the time of the passing of the law requiring a yearly wolf hunt in Wisconsin. Furthermore, in a state that has such a large amount of wild game—such as whitetail deer—the wolves have plenty of access to their natural food sources and pose little danger to livestock and pets. However, their threat to humans and their population numbers are still enough to support a well-regulated harvest of the animals. But it must be well-regulated, not one rushed into just to beat out the animals’ being put back under federal protection.