Smith: DNR social science work finds majority support for wolves in Wisconsin

As modern wildlife science evolved over the last century, the white-tailed deer earned a reputation as the most challenging species to manage.

Many members of the public, including some hunters, have pushed for higher numbers of deer while at the same time others, including ecologists and foresters, sought to lower the population toward a more natural balance with the plant community.

Such conflicting views led to the "deer wars" in Wisconsin in the 1940s.

Even Aldo Leopold, famed author and former University of Wisconsin professor who is considered by many as the "father" of the field of wildlife management and advocated for increased deer harvests to help prevent deer starving in over-browsed Wisconsin forests, was unable to win that battle.

“The real problem is not how we handle the deer in their emergency,” Leopold told Gordon MacQuarrie, former outdoors editor for the Milwaukee Journal. “The real problem is one of human management.”

Deer controversies linger and periodically erupt in Wisconsin and elsewhere. That's likely to continue for as long as there are deer and humans.

But what has changed is this: Another native species has emerged as arguably the greatest challenge for wildlife managers.

It's the gray wolf.

In a modern wildlife success story, wolves have recovered in recent decades in Wisconsin and a host of other U.S. states.

The increase in population came after years of persecution, including poisoning and bounties, had extirpated wolves from Wisconsin by 1960.

Increased protections, including the 1973 Endangered Species Act, helped the carnivore expand from a residual population in northern Minnesota and recolonize Wisconsin and Michigan.

The Badger State's wolf population was estimated at 25 in 1980, 34 in 1990, 248 in 2000, 704 in 2010 and 972 this year, according to Department of Natural Resources reports. The wolf population typically doubles in spring after pups are born and then declines through winter.

So a species that was absent from the state 60 years ago is now back in numbers large enough to require management.

And it's no simple matter. Public attitudes toward wolves span from a desire to protect them completely to wiping them out again. Subject of dozens of lawsuits at the state and national level, and on-again, off-again stints on the Endangered Species List (it's currently on), the wolf is more controversial in our culture than the deer.

A DNR slide shows the winter 2021-22 wolf population estimate of 972 gray wolves in Wisconsin and a map of observed wolf packs.
A DNR slide shows the winter 2021-22 wolf population estimate of 972 gray wolves in Wisconsin and a map of observed wolf packs.

Wolves kill some livestock and hunting dogs each year as well as prey on deer and elk. These conflicts with humans, real or perceived, present stiff challenges for DNR wildlife managers. And when the wolf is under protections of the federal Endangered Species Act, lethal removal measures such as trapping are prohibited, thereby often exacerbating frustrations of farmers and livestock producers.

Another layer of complexity was added in 2012 when the Wisconsin legislature and Gov. Scott Walker passed a law requiring a wolf hunting and trapping season whenever the species was under state management. The law led to a lawsuit by a pro-hunting group and a rushed hunting and trapping season in Feb. 2021 that resulted in 218 wolves being killed, 83% over the state-licensed quota.

Fallout from the Feb. 2021 wolf season included two in-state lawsuits, one brought by wildlife advocates in Dane County Circuit Court and one by Native American tribes in federal district court, to prevent another season from being held that fall.

The flurry of recent legal cases helps highlight the contentious nature of wolf management in our culture and underscore the need for wildlife management to be informed by the best science available.

To its credit, the DNR in 2014 and again this year conducted a social science survey of public attitudes toward wolves in Wisconsin.

The field of human dimensions is expanding and helps get at what Leopold had identified in the 1940s deer wars. The biggest challenge in wildlife management is so often a "people problem."

The social science work allows insights far beyond simple public input in which often only the most motivated participate. It employs scientifically-designed surveys to unlock findings from the larger public.

After all, the DNR is charged with public trust responsibilities and by law must manage wildlife and other resources to the betterment of all state residents, not just a vocal minority.

The wolf survey documented Wisconsinites’ "attitudes and opinions, and identified the demographic, experiential and social-psychological factors that influence those attitudes," according to the DNR.

Significantly, it looked for responses both in Wisconsin wolf range and outside of it.

The 2022 work began in May and June when the DNR mailed an eight-page questionnaire to 8,750 randomly selected Wisconsin households. The overall response rate was 38% with a total of 3,158 returned questionnaires.

Fifty-five percent of returned questionnaires came from households within wolf range.

So what did the survey show? Overall, most Wisconsinites somewhat or strongly agreed that predators like wolves keep nature in balance (77%), wolves are culturally important (71%), and wolves are special animals that deserve our admiration (75%). Similarly, a majority of Wisconsinites agreed that people and wolves should be able to coexist (75%) and that it is important to maintain a wolf population in Wisconsin (80%).

The survey also asked if people wanted more, the same or fewer wolves than are currently found in the state. Statewide 66% of respondents preferred the same, more or many more wolves, while 19% would prefer fewer, many fewer or zero and 16% said "I don't know."

A gray wolf pauses while eating and dragging a deer carcass into a forest near Laona.
A gray wolf pauses while eating and dragging a deer carcass into a forest near Laona.

The preferences varied among those in wolf range and those outside it. In wolf range, 33% preferred the same number, 27% fewer or many fewer, 22 % more or many more, 7% zero and 12% "I don't know." For those outside wolf range, 35% preferred more or many more, 33% the same, 12% fewer or many fewer, 3% zero and 18% "I don't know."

When compared to 2014 data, the level of support for the same or more wolves increased slightly in the 2022 survey.

There also was good support for the current distribution of wolves. The most common response among both wolf-range residents (41%) and those residing outside of wolf range (47%) was for wolves to occupy about the same amount of the state as their current geographic distribution.

The survey report includes dozens of interesting findings, including that most state residents have never seen a wolf and a majority of respondents supported some type of lethal control in a human-wolf conflict scenario.

Read the entire report on the DNR's wolf management page at dnr.wi.gov.

The DNR is in the process of updating its wolf management plan. The data in the 2022 public attitudes survey toward wolves will go a long way to informing the agency as it tackles modern wildlife management's toughest challenge.

The DNR is holding a public comment period on the draft wolf management plan it released Nov. 10. To read and comment on the plan, visit the wolf management plan page at dnr.wi.gov.

The deadline to submit comments is Jan. 10.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Survey finds increased public support for wolves in Wisconsin