MADISON, Wis. - Hunters would be allowed to kill nearly a quarter of Wisconsin's wolves this winter under rules the state Department of Natural Resources proposed Tuesday, sparking a debate over whether the hunt will make any dent in the state's burgeoning wolf population.
The rules package sets a statewide quota of 201 wolves across six zones. Non-tribal hunters could face even tighter kill limits, because Wisconsin's Chippewa tribes have the right to claim up to 50 percent of the quota in the northern third of the state for themselves.
The DNR estimates between 815 and 880 wolves roam the state. Complaints about attacks on farm animals have been on the uptick in recent years and department officials want to scale the population back to 350 wolves. Grumbling already has begun over whether the quota is too low to have any effect this year.
"They're being overly conservative in my judgment," said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former DNR secretary. "You may not even reduce the population for next year. I'm not disagreeing with the idea of being cautious. (But) this is getting to be ultra-cautious."
President Barack Obama's administration removed wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin from the endangered species list in January. Days later, GOP lawmakers in Wisconsin introduced a bill setting up a hunt.
The legislation laid out most of the hunt's parameters: It will run from Oct. 15 through February; permit applications will cost $10; permits will cost $100 for in-state hunters; and hunters can use dogs, traps and bait and hunt at night. However, it left the kill quotes to the DNR.
Democrats questioned whether a hunt was really necessary and complained the bill's provisions would let hunters hit wolves too hard. Republican Gov. Scott Walker still signed the measure into law in April.
Farmers struggling to protect their livestock applauded the move. The number of verified complaints of wolf attacks has risen from zero in 1994 to 111 last year, according to DNR data.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp wrote in a memo that the quotas will begin to reduce the wolf population, noting areas with depredation problems have been placed in zones with higher sub-quotas. The department is "uncomfortable" prescribing higher harvests because it's unclear how depredation kills, illegal kills and the hunt's impact on wolf reproduction will affect the population, Stepp said.
"We're going to learn a lot from this year," DNR Lands Division Administrator Kurt Thiede said in an interview. "We're trying to find a balance between all the factors."
One of those factors is Wisconsin's six Chippewa tribes — the Lac du Flambeau, the Bad River, the Red Cliff, the St. Croix, the Lac Courte Oreilles and Mole Lake.
Under treaties signed in 1837 and 1842, the tribes ceded 22,400 square miles across the northern third of the state to the government. A federal ruling in 1991 found the tribes have the right to harvest 50 percent of the quota for any animal in that territory. At least a part of all six wolf zones falls within the ceded territory.
It's unclear to what extent the tribes would exercise that right or how many tribal members would participate in a wolf hunt. If the tribes claim even a portion of their quota percentage, non-tribal hunters wouldn't be able to kill as many wolves.
The wolf plays a crucial role in the tribes' creation stories and culture, embodying intelligence and wisdom. Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission Executive Administrator James Zorn wrote to the state Senate in February that a hunt would hurt the wolf population in the territory and the legislation was rushed.
DNR officials hope the tribes will make their claim by August, when permit applications will become available.
Messages left at the commission Tuesday weren't immediately returned. Larry Wawronowicz, natural resources director for the Lac du Flambeau, declined comment, saying he had just received a copy of the rules. Attempts to reach Bad River tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. were unsuccessful. Red Cliff tribal chairwoman Rose Gurnoe Soulier didn't immediately return telephone and email messages.
State Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, helped write the hunt legislation. He's not happy about the low quota or the possibility of the tribes reducing it even further for non-tribal hunters. He said DNR officials have told him they want to avoid lawsuits from animal rights groups.
"We're going to push the DNR to raise the number in future seasons," Suder said. "Right now, we just want to get a successful first harvest season under our belt."
The Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy, is scheduled to vote on the rules at a meeting July 17 in Stevens Point.
Bill Bruins is a member of the board and president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, which lobbied for the hunt legislation. He said he supports the rules.
"By all means we don't want to overharvest in the first year," he said. "This isn't going to be a one-and-done proposition."
Rob Bohmann of Racine is a hunter and chairman of the Conservation Congress, a group of influential sportsmen who advise the DNR. He plans to try for a wolf permit, calling hunting the animal a new challenge. He called the quota "absolutely conservative," just as it should be.
"This is a first year thing. We'll see what happens," he said. "These aren't going to be easy animals to hunt."