WEST FORK KICKAPOO - When someone tells me about wolves killing livestock I always ask, “Have you lost animals here because of a wolf attack?” So far they’ve always answered “No,” followed by “but…” Then, they go on to tell me about their grandparents and their great-grandparents.
Hand-me-down stories, hand-me-down fears. Because when you look up the wolf depredation statistics for 2020 in Wisconsin, the facts don’t support the fear.
The USDA Cattle Report for Wisconsin last year, compiled by the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS), shows a cattle/calf population of 3.45 million. The 2020 Wisconsin Depredation Report lists 46 confirmed cattle/calf deaths by wolves. Bad weather, birthing complications, disease, and old age are responsible for far more livestock deaths than any predators.
Recently, officials shut down Wisconsin’s 2021 wolf hunt after only three days. Licensed hunters had killed 216 wolves—82 percent more than the 119 quota—in 60 hours. The DNR rules allowed hunters to employ bait, to hunt at night, and to use dogs to pursue the wolves. Trappers could utilize cable restraints and foot-hold traps. Since the timing of the hunt was during the wolves’ reproductive period, and with hunters wiping out 20 percent of the population, wolves may end up on the endangered list again.
Certainly, losing livestock to predators is devastating. But with less than a tenth of a percent of livestock deaths due to confirmed wolf kills, we need to ask how wolves got such a bad rap that people not only hate them but want to wipe them off the planet.
Lupophobia, fear of wolves, dates back well before European folklore and fairy tales (like Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Aesop’s Fables). In 1630, the government of the colony of Massachusetts set the first bounty on wolves in North America, which led to the use of traps, poisoning, shooting, and den destruction.
Since our pet dogs are descended from wolves, I often wonder why we love and adore the one but hate and fear the other. Does one inspire us to be the best we can be—loyal, loving, faithful—while the other represents our guilty conscience, our “sins” and evil thoughts?
I saw my first wolf on Isle Royale. Hot and thirsty after hiking four miles, I was filtering water from a stream when I began to feel as though someone was watching me. I turned slowly and stood. We watched each other until the wolf decided to saunter on. Later, when I reported my sighting, it turned out that a couple had also reported seeing the wolf at nearly the same time and place.
The following year, I was backpacking on the Superior Hiking Trail with my small dog Finnegan. In our weeks outdoors, we only spied two bears at a distance—no moose, wolves, coyotes, fox, or even deer. On the last day of our trip, we stayed with some friends at their remote home in Sturgeon Lake, Minnesota. After a good night’s sleep, we were enjoying breakfast when we saw, out their picture window, on the edge of the forest, a beautiful wolf!
Wolves play a large part in keeping our ecosystem healthy. Here in Wisconsin, wolves help keep our deer population down, which aids plants as well as other animal species. Wolves also feed other animals with their kills because they scatter the carcasses over the landscape. Our scavengers (mink, weasel, and many birds, including eagles and owls) benefit from eating the wolves’ leftovers.
Because wolves prey on sick animals, their kills help keep illnesses such as chronic wasting disease from spreading.Their kills also enhance the soil with nutrients and a higher level of nitrogen.
Mice and deer spread Lyme bacteria, a big problem in Wisconsin. In the 19th century, white-tailed deer were nearly wiped out from deforestation and hunting. In the last half of the 20th century they came back strong, building the tick population with them. Wisconsin’s number of tick-borne illness keeps climbing as the deer population rises. Thank heaven for wolves, which are the deer’s natural predator.
So how can we coexist with the wolves, whom we need in order to maintain the natural balance of our ecosystem?
Guard animals can be used. Removing livestock that have died from natural causes and become a food source is critical. Monitoring unhealthy animals that would be easy prey for a predator, and using electric fencing for birthing corrals and nursing mothers are other ideas that experts offer. Turbo fladry fencing, a simple system of red nylon flags tied on portable electric wiring, has proven to be a successful proactive, nonlethal solution.
We won’t know for a while how the 2021 hunting overkill during the worst time possible for the wolves will affect our Wisconsin population. What we do know is the importance of coexisting.
Do people who fear wolves or who only want to kill them for sport change their minds when they look at the facts? I doubt it.But we can hope that the narrative about wolves will change with our children. The stories they hand down will be about the valuable roles wolves play in our ecosystem. And instead of fearing wolves, let us hope they are lucky enough to see one on the edge of the forest.