A national watchdog group says Wisconsin bear hunters are harassing wolves with their dog packs — then claiming state compensation when their hounds are killed — and wants the federal government to launch a criminal investigation.

The practice amounts to “a state-sanctioned financial subsidy for hunters engaged in the criminal harassment” of wolves, an attorney for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) said in a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2016, Wisconsin paid out $99,400 for 41 dogs, a maximum of $2,500 each. The dogs were killed primarily in July and August, when hunters are in the woods training their packs to chase bears and wolf pups are first emerging from their dens. More than a dozen dogs were killed, despite “caution” warnings by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that wolf packs with pups were active in the area, PEER said.

“It is harassment of an endangered species, committed by a relatively small number of hunters,” said Adam Carlesco, staff counsel for PEER. He said Wisconsin is the only state that reimburses dog owners in addition to farmers and livestock owners for wolf depredation.

Letter from PEER to USFWS on hounding in Wisconsin. Note: Some names have been redacted because no charges have been filed.

The president of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters’ Association called PEER’s allegations “absurd” and said that most hunters try to avoid wolves, even as their population expands.

“[PEER] has no idea what it costs to raise feed and maintain a good hunting dog,” said Carl Schoettel. The state’s financial compensation “is a fraction of what the loss is, plus the emotional cost to your children’s hunting dogs and yours also.”

Officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service said that they received the letter but that they haven’t decided how to respond.

PEER’s action has intensified the long-running conflict between wolf advocates and some in the Wisconsin hunting community about the use of dogs to pursue prey. Wisconsin was the only state that allowed the use of dogs to hunt wolves when they were temporarily removed from federal threatened species protection between 2012 and 2014 — a practice widely criticized by wildlife advocates but eventually upheld by a state court.

Recently, the Wisconsin Legislature made it illegal for anyone to observe or document hunters’ activities in the field, after a wolf protection group in Bayfield County began following hunters who use dogs for bear hunting. That law is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by the wildlife protection group.

“It’s a battleground,” said Adrian Treves, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who studies social attitudes toward wolves.

It also highlights the ongoing tension over federal protection for the gray wolf, whose status as an endangered species is the subject of a decadeslong legal fight. In a major victory for wildlife advocates last week, a federal appeals court said the Fish and Wildlife Service cannot delist wolves in the Great Lakes region without considering the impact on the species’ survival across the country.

While northern Minnesota’s wolf population has remained largely stable for several years, at around 2,300, the numbers have been growing in Wisconsin. Last winter, the Wisconsin DNR estimated the number of wolves in the northern part of the state at a minimum of 950, up from about 50 in the mid-1990s. The state’s population goal during the years when wolves were delisted was a total of 350, a number that both state officials and bear hunters say would greatly reduce conflicts.

Bear hunting tradition

Bear hunting in Wisconsin is on the rise, as well. David MacFarland, a Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist, said 114,000 people applied for permits last year, compared with 80,000 a decade ago. Only one in 10 applications is granted.

Among the 32 states that permit bear hunting, Wisconsin is one of just 18 that permits the use of dogs to chase bears and hold them in place until the hunter can shoot. In Minnesota, the practice has never been allowed.

But it is a deeply held tradition among a minority of bear hunters in Wisconsin.

Carl Schoettel, president of Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, full response to questions from Star Tribune.

“Since the dawn of time people have hunted with the aid of dogs,” said Schoettel of the Bear Hunters’ Association. “It also is a form of hunting that is very easy to involve your family and young people.”

Training dog packs to chase bear is a big part of the tradition. Wisconsin allows training on state and federal land from July 1 through the start of bear hunting season in early September. That’s also the time when dogs are likely to collide with wolves around the rendezvous sites where wolves feed and care for their new pups.

David Mech, a wolf researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, said that invariably dogs are the ones that lose those fights. “I don’t know of any case where dogs have killed wolves,” he said. “That’s why the DNR tells hunters where [they] should stay away from. If they are going to turn them loose in an area where they are apt to get killed, that’s the hunters’ fault.”

Schoettel said the vast majority of hunters and trainers avoid wolf territories if they can, but that’s increasingly difficult as the wolf population expands. “I will say that there is not an area in the northern half and some of the south-central part of the state that does not have wolf packs,” he said.

Treves said, however, that no one really knows the extent of harm to wolves because no one has ever looked. At minimum, he said, “hounds are ... disrupting the social organization of an endangered species.” He also said his research showed that only a small number of packs tangle with dogs.

“It takes a special pack,” he said, primarily larger packs with frequent encounters.

PEER’s Carlesco said his review of compensation cases shows the same is true on the human side of the problem: A relatively small number of hunters are “repeat offenders.” He asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate 22 individuals. The list includes one who was compensated for three different wolf encounters in nine days and another who has been convicted of poaching and intentional mistreatment of animals who was compensated twice for the loss of dogs.