TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan – Up to a third of Wisconsin’s gray wolves likely died at human hands in the months after the federal government announced the end of legal protections, according to a study released Monday.
Poaching and a hunt in February that far exceeded slaughter quotas were largely responsible for the drop, University of Wisconsin scientists said, although other scientists say more direct evidence is needed for some of the calculations.
Adrian Treves, professor of environmental studies, said his team’s findings should raise doubts about another hunting season this fall and warn managers of wildlife in other states with wolves.
The removal of federal protections “opens the door for antagonists to kill large numbers of people over short periods of time, legally and illegally,” Treves and two of his colleagues said in an article published by the journal PeerJ. “The story of wolf political scapegoats may repeat itself.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves from the lower 48 states from its endangered and threatened species list in January, shortly before former President Donald Trump left. Agency biologists have long argued that the predator recovered from the persecution that nearly wiped out him in the mid-20th century.
Environmental and animal rights groups argue the move was premature because wolves have not returned to most of their historic range. They are pushing the Biden administration to reverse it.
Wisconsin was the first state to resume hunting. His Natural Resources Department planned to wait until November, but was forced to schedule a season in February after a pro-hunting organization obtained a court order. Authorities cut short after hunters killed 218 wolves, exceeding the target of 119.
Based on population models, environmental scientists from Treves and the University of Wisconsin Francisco Santiago-Avila and Karann Putrevu estimate in their article that people have killed an additional 95 to 105 wolves in the Wisconsin between November 3, when the plan to lift federal protections was announced, and mid-April.
They say the deaths reduced the statewide wolf total to 695 to 751, down from at least 1,034 in the spring of 2020. This upsets the Wisconsin DNR’s goal of keeping the population stable even with hunting. , according to the newspaper.
The ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Treves and his colleagues attribute more than half of the non-hunting deaths to “cryptic poaching” or illegal killings in which the poacher leaves no evidence, hiding the animal’s body and destroying its radio collar. Other man-made deaths could include car strikes and deadly government-approved checks for wolves harassing livestock, Treves said.
His previous research concluded that such poaching worsens when legal protections are relaxed, largely based on the number of radio collared wolves that disappear long before the batteries fail.
Treves argues that people hostile to wolves may take the relaxation of the rules as a sign that attacking them is okay. A 2017 article responding to one of his earlier studies described the claim as “based on flawed analysis and an unconvincing interpretation of the scientific literature.”
Daniel MacNulty, associate professor of wildlife ecology at Utah State University, questioned the methods Treves and his team used to calculate cryptic poaching for their latest article, saying more direct evidence was needed.
“I would interpret the results with caution,” he said in an interview last week.
Treves said his conclusions were supported by a variety of data on the wolf population and the social sciences.
The Wisconsin DNR says on its website that it is preparing for a fall hunt “through a transparent and scientific process” that will take into account the February results. The Natural Resources Board is expected to set a slaughter quota in August.
But it could drive the population to dangerously low levels, Treves said. The February hunt took place during the wolf’s breeding season and it is not known to what extent the breeding was disturbed, he said.
“Without information on the number of puppies born this summer, it is really difficult to plan another hunt,” he said.
Michigan and Minnesota wildlife managers are also considering hunting wolves. In some western states, Republican lawmakers advocate aggressive methods such as night hunts, bounty-type payments, and allow shooting from powered parachutes, ATVs, or snowmobiles at any time of the year.
Treves said his article should warn officials in those states that unreported poaching can be “massive” and should be factored into hunting quotas.
Ed Bangs, a retired US Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator, said it was too early to draw general conclusions based on Wisconsin’s initial season, which he said. described as a “wave of killings” that violated the ethics of hunting. State wildlife managers are able to design science-based hunts that keep wolf populations healthy if politicians and judges allow them to do so, he said.
“I have a lot of faith in wolves,” Bangs said. “They are very resilient and can bounce back. “