The following piece authored by Anthony LoCoco originally ran in the Wisconsin State Journal on April 8, 2023.
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?
In Wisconsin, more than a few residents, and with good reason. Each year the state’s sizable gray wolf population collects its share of livestock and pets from hardworking Wisconsin families in predictably grisly fashion. This unsanctioned “wolf tax” makes setting wolf management policy in Wisconsin a highly contentious issue, given the contingent of environmentalists who oppose even modest attempts to rein in wolf population growth.
With U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Minocqua, and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., pushing legislation to again delist the wolf from the Endangered Species List, renewed focus is on state wolf management.
Yet despite a record-breaking glut of gray wolves in Wisconsin in recent years, the state Department of Natural Resources is now poised to let the population off the leash (so to speak) and discard Wisconsin’s longstanding management approach of setting a numeric population goal — all without the vote of a single elected representative.
Since 1999, when the gray wolf population in Wisconsin was about 200 wolves, Wisconsin has had a 350-wolf population management goal. That goal was selected by DNR (along with the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board) after careful study. The DNR and NRB later reaffirmed this 350-wolf goal in 2007, when the wolf population was over 500, indicating that they had begun “to apply controls on the wolf population.”
A decade and a half later, Wisconsin’s wolf population has at times approached 1,200 wolves or more. So much for the goal.
This huge expansion allowed hunters to harvest 218 wolves in under 3 days in 2021, forcing the DNR to conclude the season’s hunt early. It has meant 48 farms with verified wolf depredations in 2021, the highest level in modern Wisconsin history. It has led to the payment of over $1 million in damages to Wisconsinites since just 2016 for dead, injured or missing calves, cattle, hunting dogs, sheep, chickens and other livestock, not to mention numerous pet dogs.
In light of this explosive growth, Wisconsinites might reasonably expect the DNR to explain what it is doing to bring the population back in line with the 350-wolf management goal. Instead, the DNR suddenly announced last fall — if you can call a statement buried 100 pages into a 178-page draft management plan an announcement — that it is not only discarding the 350-wolf goal, but it will not be using any numeric goal going forward.
As justification, the DNR has provided vague statements such as its view that numeric goals “may unnecessarily restrict decisions” and can “easily fail to account for other biological concerns and social factors which are ever evolving through space and time.” In lieu of a numeric goal, the DNR is arrogating to itself the authority to set wolf policy comprehensively on a rolling basis. “Trust us” is the fundamental (and familiar) governmental ask.
Well, trust must be earned. And Wisconsinites can be forgiven for wondering if the DNR’s radical shift in approach has anything to do with the increasing difficulty the DNR is experiencing in explaining why its wolf population is so far out of whack when compared to the state’s goal. Or does the policy departure stem from bureaucratic discomfort in what would be required to bring the population back into check? Has the DNR’s efforts to control the gray wolf failed, or was this growth intentionally permitted despite the goal?
Unfortunately, speculation on such questions is going to have to continue until a greater level of oversight of the DNR’s wolf management activities occurs. That is why my group, the Institute for Reforming Government, is releasing a report through its Center for Investigative Oversight posing 10 basic questions to the DNR about its draft management plan, including questions about the plan’s effect on Wisconsin’s prized deer and elk populations, the DNR’s authority for making the change in the first place, and how much this new approach is going to cost taxpayers.
The DNR will soon be releasing an updated version of its draft plan, putting lawmakers in the perfect position to demand and obtain information from agency officials on these critical issues.
These questions may not matter to the average city-dweller whose closest experience to a wolf encounter involves late-night classic horror flicks. But to the farmers, hunters and families living in the northern half of the state, they matter a great deal.
The DNR owes Wisconsin answers.