Rachel Germain remembers distinctly when wolves became a problem for her family. It was winter 2012-2013, she said, “and it’s just gotten worse since then.”
A college student, Rachel, 19, of Somerset, Wis., first accompanied her parents on deer hunts when she was a young girl. Her grandpa had built a cabin near Moose Junction, Wis., years ago, and it was there the family gathered in November to hunt whitetails.
“But only mature bucks,” she said. “We tried to kill only older deer.”
But Rachel no longer attends the family deer hunt. “It’s not worth it,” she said. “My dad still sits in a stand all day, sunup to sundown. But he never sees anything. The wolves have killed all the deer.”
Wolves have taken more than deer hunting from Rachel. One of her favorite hounds, a Plott named Showtime, was killed by wolves this fall while she, her dad and her sister were bear hunting — the second dog the family has lost to Wisconsin’s increasingly brazen wolf population.
“It’s been happening for years,” Rachel said. “When our dogs get on a bear trail and start barking, wolves seem to just come running for the dogs. We’re constantly dealing with it.”
Wisconsin was home last winter to perhaps as many as 978 wolves gathered in about 250 packs, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
In 1980, only about 25 wolves inhabited the Badger State. In 1990, the number was 34. By 2000, the population had exploded to 248, and by 2010, roughly 700 wolves were believed to be in the state. (Minnesota’s wolf population estimate is 2,655.)
For much of the last century, black bears were unprotected in Wisconsin. With no hunting seasons or regulations governing their take, the animals were considered vermin and were shot and trapped year-round.
Changes occurred beginning in the 1950s, when registration of killed bears was required in Wisconsin and when bear trapping was outlawed. Then, in 1963, according to the Wisconsin Bear Hunters’ Association, three demonstration hunts were held — “The purpose of which was to demonstrate a hunting technique not familiar to most Wisconsin hunters: running bear with dogs.”
The practice — similar today to the way raccoons are hunted in Minnesota and mountain lions are hunted out West — quickly took hold in Wisconsin. Rachel’s dad, Dennis, for instance, has run Plott hounds on bears for decades, and Rachel made her first bear hunt, she said, “in the womb.”
“I remember about the time I was born, my parents had a litter of hound puppies, and we have pictures of me as a newborn surrounded by them,” she said.
Protected again by the federal Endangered Species Act after having been returned to state management in 2011, wolves were last hunted and trapped in Wisconsin in the winter of 2013-2014.
That season, Wisconsin wolf hunters and trappers killed 257 wolves, a 119% increase from the 2012-2013 harvest of 117 wolves.
As is the case in Minnesota, the idea of wolves as furry icons of the north generally wins favor in southern Wisconsin, while in the northern part of that state, the reality of living with wild canines that kill livestock, pets and hunting dogs — including bird dogs — is less widely appreciated.
“Our group has had three hunting dogs killed,” said Dave Lunde of St. Croix Falls, Wis. “This year we had an experience in which a wolf came in on my three friends and I and our three hounds when we had a bear treed. We couldn’t figure out at first why this other dog was coming to our tree. When we realized it was a wolf, we yelled and scared it away.”
Territorial gray wolves will opportunistically kill coyotes, dogs and other wolves who wander onto their home turf. Since the first of the year in Wisconsin, nearly 30 pet dogs and hunting dogs have been killed or injured by wolves.
Wisconsin farmers and pet- and hunting-dog owners, among others, are reimbursed by the state for verified animal losses. Since 1985, nearly $2.5 million has been paid out, most for wolf-caused cattle losses and injuries, while bear-dog owners have received nearly $850,000.
The fund is opposed by Wisconsin animal rights advocates, some of whom claimed earlier this year on a Madison billboard that, “Wisconsin pays hunters who let wolves kill their dogs.”
Hunters, Rachel said, would never “let” wolves kill their dogs.
“These are our family dogs, too,” she said. “Two years ago, we lost Dolly, Showtime’s littermate, to wolves. She and the other dogs were on a bear track, barking, but Dolly fell behind somehow. All of the other dogs came out to us, but she stayed on the bear. The wolves singled her out and killed her.”
For some Wisconsin bear hunters, wolf encounters have become too commonplace, and they have hung up their guns. Others, like Rachel’s family, have shifted hunting grounds to areas that, at least for now, have fewer wolves.
“When I was a little girl I was scared to go into the woods,” she said. “As I grew up, I realized there was nothing to be afraid of. Now, again, the woods are eerier than I’d like them to be.”