protect the wolves

Hunters and severe winters – not wolves – key to Wisconsin’s deer numbers

In Ban Grazing Allotments, Oppose Welfare Ranching, Protect The Wolves by Twowolves1 Comment

protect the wolves

When it comes to gray wolves and white-tailed deer, there are enough deep-seated beliefs to fill the Dells of the Wisconsin River.

Some of them, like many of the acts in the nearby town, are based more on fiction than fact.—

Here’s one: The wolves are killing all the deer in northern Wisconsin.

It’s not a new refrain, but it’s one I continue to hear from some of my hunting colleagues each year.

Now in late summer 2017, as bucks begin to lose their velvet and wolf pups start to venture out more with adults, conditions are ripe to discuss trends in both species.

In a word, both are “up.”

There are 480,273 deer in the 18-county northern forest management zone, according to the 2017 pre-hunt population estimate from the Department of Natural Resources.

The 2017 number represents an 18% year-over-year increase.

The population of wolves, as you may know, is at an all-time high in Wisconsin. The DNR in June reported a record high of at least 925 wolves, most of which are in northern Wisconsin.

The latest wolf report represents a 6% increase from 2015-’16 and a 24% rise from 2014-’15.

So the two iconic wildlife species have been increasing in number across Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

Why? And how can it be? If wolves are at an all-time high – and if they “eat all the deer” – shouldn’t the deer herd at least be falling?

A look at the data and management related to each species can be illuminating.

The wolf population has increased largely due to a December 2014 federal judge’s decision that placed the western Great Lakes population under protections of the Endangered Species Act. The ruling has prevented state officials from holding public hunting and trapping seasons or using other lethal means to manage the species.

Deer have been increasing partly due to protection, too. For the last several years, the number of antlerless deer permits has been significantly reduced in northern units. Some counties have allowed zero.

With more female deer allowed to live and reproduce, the population assumed an upward trajectory.

Mother Nature is the other primary factor allowing deer herd growth in the north. The last three years have been marked by “soft” winters, including the fourth (2015-’16) and sixth (2016-’17) mildest on record since 1960, according to the DNR’s Winter Severity Index.

In contrast, two very rough winters took a toll on the deer herd in 2011-’12 and 2012-’13. The 2011-’12 winter was the third most severe on record; the following year was especially tough on deer since winter conditions lasted into May.

The milder winters have been reflected in recent years in higher fawn-doe ratios and a higher proportion of yearling bucks with forked antlers, according to DNR big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang.

Another factor – habitat – likely has improved marginally in northern Wisconsin in recent years due to some changes in forestry practices. But it’s harder to quantify and likely takes longer to show its effects on the deer herd.

I find the status of both species particularly interesting now, as wolf numbers have climbed to a record high.

Wolves obviously eat deer. According to most experts, an adult wolf will consume the equivalent of 20 adult-sized deer annually.

But when compared to other sources of deer mortality in Wisconsin, wolves rank down the list.

I ran the numbers and trends past David Mech, senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, Minn. Mech has studied wolves for 59 years and is considered an expert on the species and its effect on plant and animal communities.

“Under these current Wisconsin regulations and conditions, wolves are apparently not a competitor, or aren’t really having that much of an impact (on deer),” Mech said.

The leading causes of deer mortality in the state, as Wisconsin wildlife managers have long said, are human hunters and severe winters.

A 2009 DNR document ranked the deer kill in Wisconsin’s northern and central forest regions this way: 122,000 deer killed by hunters (bow and gun), about 50,000 due to winter stress (the range could vary widely), 33,000 to black bears, 16,000 to coyotes, 13,000 to motor vehicles, 13,000 to wolves and 6,000 to bobcats.

The trends over the last few years in northern Wisconsin are clear.

When I was in Bayfield and Sawyer counties in May for the Governors Fishing Opener, I counted 72 deer on an evening drive from Cable to Hayward.

The conditions reminded me of the plethora of deer I used to see in the area in the mid to late 1990s.

Wolves are up in number. Deer are too.

Humans and Mother Nature have far more control over deer populations than wolves ever will.

I’m hoping my hunting buddies read this. But as always, I’ll be happy to tell them in person.

Pass it along to your friends, too.

As we move forward with management plans on both species, it’s important to bring as many facts to the debate as possible.

Source: Smith: Hunters and severe winters – not wolves – key to Wisconsin’s deer numbers


  1. Last winter I was discussing upper great lakes deer densities with a long-time WI state wildlife biologist. At the time he pointed out deer densities in WI, MN, IA, as having some areas where deer were at 100 per square mile. He mentioned other midwest states as having areas of similar densities. This happens to be somewhere in the range as 10x as many as estimated presettlement populations.

    DNR stated: The statewide posthunt white-tailed deer population estimate for 2016 was approximately 1,343,500, 14% higher than in 2015.
    Concerning, though, is the fact that WI allows hound-hunting of bears. Wolves are still clustered around rendezvous sites (If readers don’t know what these are, Wolf mothers leave dens with pups after about six weeks, and she, with the father and older siblings, chooses a site where some open visual clearing exists, always with water to drink. The family operates from this site, leaving a pup-sitter, into or through September, when the growing pups become able to follow the adults and subadults, although they will need another month or two to manage the long distances and faster speeds traveled for foraging), and are extremely protective of their young, and pack members.
    This tends to result in violent conflict with those dogs being trained in summer, as canids are always curious about other canids.

    Worse, Wisconsin dog hunting enthusiasts (they also come from those less-wooded states below, IL, IN, etc) use leftover fast food, from donuts to McDonald’s cooking grease to bait bears. Bears, as Ive said before, have small home ranges and territories already, and thus the baiting makes the word “hunting” a falsehood.

    In any case, wolves are more active and mobile in winter, and less territorial due to their own larger marked territories. Both in my personal experience and in the observations of many wolf biologists, wolves might in their mobile seasons, visit places within their territories as little as once in two weeks to about once in three to five days. This is due to prey being patchy, as well as the natural evolved avoidance by deer of present or recent wolves.
    Deer tend to spend most of their time in the areas where pack borders exist, as wolves are more aggressive and surer within their homes, than where they might meet competing wolves. This appears to be so for elk as well, to some extent, and because wolves have once again made ungulates mobile as they were always evolved to be, squatty human hunters took offense that their targets during the time of wolf absence, largely only the 20th century, no longer acted like cows, leisurely sedentarily occupying open riparian areas.

    So, during these decades of return to normal wild activity, it is the hunters who are largely resistant to the change from domesticity (except in this deer hunter author’s case. Now all that remains to return is the native traditional recognition that each life has extreme value, and the ancient rituals of contrition and gratitude for the deer’s life are needed to replace the idea of human or personal “ownership” or superior “right” to decide the lives and deaths of others).
    It is possible with enough decades or centuries, that we can or will return to relationsihp with other life, although at present, as Twowolves understands – from his reporting on the wolf-hate and revenge-killing being done by our kind here in the west – we remain stuck in the traditional European (also shared by herders in central Asia) hate and vilification of a four-legged, who are very like ourselves at our best.
    So the failure is our own, so long as we fail to personally change away from this present culture.
    It is necessary to base our trust, friendships, and political choices upon how the individual feels toward both the wolf, and toward all other individuals with whom we share life. This cannot ever be limited to the human only.

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