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History, Population Growth, and Management
of Wolves in Wisconsin
Adrian P. Wydeven, Jane E. Wiedenhoeft, Ronald N. Schultz ,
Richard P. Thiel , Randy L. Jurewicz , Bruce E. Kohn , and
Timothy R. Van Deelen
The gray wolf has exhibited a remarkable recovery in Wisconsin during the late
twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, despite a common belief during the
mid-1900s that the state was no longer wild enough to support populations of large
predators such as gray wolves.
In some ways, Wisconsin seems like an unlikely
place for wolves to have recovered. The state’s nickname, “America’s Dairyland,”
reflects the abundance of livestock farming. Wisconsin has over 3.3 million cattle and
over 5.5 million people in a land area of 140,663 km 2 . Roughly half the state is forest,
and in 2002, 46% was classified as farmland (Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau
2003) . Public lands include 16.4% of the state, with major land ownership in county
forests, national forests, national wildlife refuges, state forests, and state wildlife areas
(Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau 2003) . Wisconsin’s largest federal or state
designated wilderness area covers 73 km 2 .
Despite few large wild areas, wolves were able to recolonize and again become
important elements of forest ecosystems in northern and central Wisconsin. Legal
protection, public education and outreach, and sound scientific management of
public forest lands enabled wolves to recover and demonstrated that wolves can
recover without extensive wilderness, provided there is adequate habitat, prey, legal
protection, and public acceptance.
Early History and Initial Recolonization
of Wolves in Wisconsin
Gray wolves probably have occupied Wisconsin since the last glacier receded about
10,000 years ago, and perhaps earlier in portions of southwestern Wisconsin that
were not glaciated. Populations of wolves probably fluctuated with the size of
ungulate populations. When the first European exploration began in 1634, wolves
coexisted with herds of bison ( Bison bison ), elk ( Cervus elaphus , and white-tailed
deer ( Odocoileus virginianus ) in prairies, savannas, and oak ( Quercus ) and maple
( Acer ) forests of southern Wisconsin, and with moose ( Alces alces ), white-tailed
deer, and small numbers of caribou ( Rangifier tarandus ) in the hemlock-maple
( Tsuga-Acer ), pine ( Pinus ), swamp conifers, and boreal forests and bogs of northern
Beavers ( Castor canadensis ) also were abundant throughout the state,
but probably more so in the streams and glacial lakes of northern Wisconsin.
When European settlement started in earnest during the 1830s, beavers were nearly
eliminated due to unregulated trapping during the fur trade, and bison were
extirpated by Native Americans after acquiring horses and firearms (Thiel 1993)
Other prey such as deer, elk, and moose were probably still relatively abundant.
Jackson (1961) speculated that there were 20,000–25,000 wolves in Wisconsin
at the beginning of European settlement. This would have represented an unlikely
density of 142–177 wolves per 1,000 km 2 . Wolf densities this high have not been
documented in modern research on wolves in North America (Fuller et al. 2003) .
Wydeven (1993) speculated that perhaps 3,000–5,000 wolves existed at the
beginning of European settlement, or about 20–35 wolves per 1,000 km 2 .
This estimate appears more compatible with likely prey abundance and agrees with
recent research on wolf densities.
A bounty for the killing of wolves was offered by the Wisconsin Territory from
1839 through 1847, and following statehood (1848), a state bounty ran nearly
continuously from 1865 to 1957 (Thiel 1993) . Bounties were paid to private trappers
and hunters for killing wolves and coyotes ( Canis latrans ), and both species were
listed as wolves in bounty records. After 1947, when wolves had declined to very
low numbers, wolves were distinguished from coyotes in the bounty records (Thiel
1993) . Unlike western states, federal and state governments made no concerted
effort to eliminate wolves in Wisconsin. Rangeland grazing of livestock was not
practiced across northern Wisconsin, and livestock were normally kept in small
fenced pastures near farmsteads. Nonetheless, unregulated hunting and trapping, as
well as the incentive of bounty payments, caused the eventual collapse of the wolf
population in Wisconsin.
Recolonization of Wisconsin by wolves began by 1975, and by 1979, five wolf
packs were established in two Wisconsin counties. A wolf pack was detected in
Minnesota along the Wisconsin border during winter 1974–1975, and between
1975 and 1979, five wolves were found dead in Douglas County, Wisconsin, just
east of the Minnesota border (Mech and Nowak 1981 ; Thiel 1993) . Thiel and
Welch (1981) documented breeding packs of wolves in the state by 1977 and 1978.
In 1979, two wolves were also found dead in Lincoln County, about 200 km southeast
of the Douglas County packs (Thiel 1993) . The source of colonizing wolves was
likely the large Minnesota population to the west, although the appearance of a
pack in Lincoln County in north-central Wisconsin in 1979 may indicate that some
wolves had persisted in parts of Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) also maintained a
list of state endangered and threatened species, and with their return, gray wolves
were listed as endangered species under state law in 1975. In 1979, the WDNR began
a program of formal monitoring of the wolf population (Wydeven et al. 1995) .
The late-winter wolf population grew from 25 wolves in 1979–1980 to 540
wolves in 2006–2007. During this period the range occupied by territorial wolves
grew from <1 2="" km="" to="">14,000 km 2 . Mean pack size has generally averaged1>
slightly less than 4, survival rates of pups to the end of the first winter averaged
29%, and about 32% of packs were unsuccessful raising pups