Much has been written about the wolf. There aren’t many animals who inspire such passion in humans. From deep respect to racist-like hatred to flowery admiration, people in the northern hemisphere have strong opinions about wolf, our largest wild canid. It’s not my first choice to write about such a polarized topic, but Wisconsin just opened a wolf hunting season during which more than 200 wolves were killed, and I feel compelled to speak.
On February 22, 2021, hunters in the Northwoods were armed with everything from black powder, to bolt action, to assault-type rifles, hoping to get a shot at the elusive predator.
Their logic is myriad. “We’re trying to save deer. Livestock. Pets. (Human) Babies.” Some pro-wolf hunters use accusations to incite deep emotional reactions in whoever will listen, charged statements designed to incite conflict, reminiscent of schoolyard bullies. “Do you want a wolf to kill your baby!?”
The underlying message: we are afraid. Wolves are an easy target for the fears of the ignorant. I don’t mean stupid; I mean uneducated about the topic. When your childhood stories include such myths as “Little Red Riding Hood,” where the wolf is big, bad, and brimming with murderous intent, it’s easy to have the wrong idea about the realities of our wildlife. The cultural story of good vs. evil is in our movies, our books, and our fairy tales. It’s Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader ad infinitum. Everywhere the wolf is vilified. The forever bad guy. And what does the hero do to the bad guy? The hero kills the villain violently and righteously, saving the innocent.
On the other hand, I know of a hunter who would never think of killing a wolf. He admires them and appreciates the job that wolves do for the landscape and its animals. He says that wolves on the land are a sign of a healthy environment and that to remove them would throw the whole system out of balance. He says it could cause a top-down collapse.
The ‘environmentalists’ have varying perspectives, too, from believing they share a spirit with wolves and deeply appreciating the lives of these animals, to thinking that wolves could survive as benevolent vegans (reflected by people who feed their dogs vegetarian diets), a sentiment more in line with fantasy than reality.
Some anti-wolf hunt groups put out information about the hunt that is rife with name calling and insults, reflecting the anger and intolerance of the writer more than anything else. I understand the urge to fight for what you love and care for, and yet, their words alienate and create drama, inflaming the topic and making the rift between the sides deeper, harder to cross.
Day one of the hunt.
It’s 7:30 a.m. Monday the 22 of Feb 2021. Opening day of the Wisconsin wolf hunt. Overnight we’ve had around 2 inches of powder fresh snow covering our existing foot of depth with a velvety soft powder that no wolf could move over without leaving obvious sign for all to see. Conditions are perfect. Ideal. Unless you’re a wolf.
My understanding of wolf hunting is by observation and hearsay mixed with my own experiences of hunting coyotes as a young person and topped by reading articles on the subject.
It starts like this:
A hunter drives around and looks for a wolf and upon spotting one, jumps out of their truck and shoots said wolf. That’s the best-case scenario for a wolf hunter. Yet, this isn’t the most productive method here in the Northwoods as most of the ground is covered with forests, and it’s quite rare to see a wolf while driving. If you do, it’s most likely a quick glimpse while the animal is crossing the road, not allowing time for a hunter to stop the vehicle, climb out, take aim, and get off a good shot before the wolf disappears into the woods.
Other methods are a bit more involved, but don’t require much, if any, more skill as an outdoorsman.
One is the game call. A predator like a wolf can hardly resist the electronic screams of a wounded deer or some other such prey in distress. Many game calls come with 100 calls on them and the ability to get up to 1000 more, giving hunters an advantage without requiring them to possess any skill. To use one of these calls, a hunter sets it in the woods and presses a button on a remote to activate it, then waits for a hungry predator. For a bit of contrast, when I was a boy learning to hunt turkeys, we made our own calls out of the lower leg bones of a turkey and spent hundreds of hours trying to perfect our skills at calling them in.
Another hunting method is hounds. Now, I’m trying to make sense of this as it’s a complex topic. I’ve been hearing for years now that bear hunters don’t want wolves around because wolves will hunt down and kill bear dogs. And yet, they use hounds to run wolves?
During the fall bear season, wolves are still using rendezvous sites because their pups are young. A rendezvous site is the place where the pups hang out during the day whilst their pack (or parents) are hunting. The pups at this point (around 8 weeks) have outgrown their dens and have been moved to a prominent spot deep in the wolves’ territory where they spend their time growing into young adults. The preference of a pack is to have a babysitter stay with the young wolves. These babysitters can be a parent or an aunt or uncle (or another wolf from another pack who has joined) and tend to be very tolerant nurturers. They play and protect the little ones while they grow and oftentimes rely on food brought back by the wolves who are out hunting. As well, the pups are fed by other members of the pack who bring back loads of meat in their stomachs to be regurgitated for the pups.
Hunters say (and it makes sense to me) that during the fall bear hunt, during this time when the pups are vulnerable, the adult wolves are much more protective and prone to attacking hounds who get close to rendezvous sites. It’s this time of year that hounds are potentially in danger.
In the winter, the pups are not staying in rendezvous sites, and it seems hounds aren’t in nearly as much danger as in the fall.
So, a hunter drives along looking for a fresh wolf track. They aren’t looking for a pack, just an individual and they want to turn the hounds loose on these loners as that’s the safest bet for the hounds. They’ll turn their hounds on the trail and watch their dogs, via gps tracking collars, to see where to ‘head them off.’ Hunters will drive around these blocks of forest lands and be waiting when the wolf comes into a road where they oftentimes will be shot. If this method fails, hunters will sometimes catch their dogs when they cross at these funnel points and turn fresh dogs onto the trail. This way, the wolf never gets to rest and constantly has dogs chasing it. Eventually, the dogs will overtake the exhausted animal and again, using their gps tracking computers, hunters will hike into where their dogs have the wolf bayed up, and shoot it.
However these hunters decide to hunt, the first step is to locate wolves and this is done by looking for tracks (or live animals). Once fresh sign is found, the hunting methods mentioned are employed as well as variations. So, opening day 2021 doesn’t bode well for wolves. The fresh snow and warmer weather make perfect conditions for hunters and we’ll see how it goes. Energy has been building and we’ve seen a lot of hunters in the last few days driving around looking for wolf sign.
Wolves have a deep and rich social life that humans barely understand. We call them packs when in fact, they are families.
The word ‘pack,’ to me, has a bit of a negative even derogatory connotation so I decided to do a little research. It turns out that the word pack is derived probably from the 13th century Low Germanic word “pak” meaning bundle or package. It became a word used to describe a grouping of things and at some point, in the late 14th century was used as a “grouping of people of low character” (notice the negative connotation). Later in the mid-15th century, it began being used as ‘a group of instinctively herding hunting animals,’ the way we’re using it now for social predators.
These family units, or packs, evolve to fit their landscape niche perfectly. They don’t, as most humans imagine, breed and eat until their prey collapses, putting them into a population pendulum swing towards extinction. They instead, come into balance with their natural environment and, at the same time, bring their natural environment into balance.
When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone after a 75-year absence, the overpopulated prey provided them with an incredible smorgasbord. The pack size quickly swelled to more than 20 animals in some cases, exactly what was called for in the over-browsed and over-grazed landscape. Within a short time, this chronically over-eaten land began to heal, and birds, insects, and mammals that the land had long forgotten, were able to again call it home.
Did the wolves then eat themselves into starvation?
Quite the contrary. The pack dynamics quickly balanced and the population stabilized via a little-known mechanism. It turns out that 49 percent of wolves in Yellowstone die by other wolves. The intricate social web handles both the breeding/birthing and the dying that needs to happen. The numbers of wolves on the landscape balance out no matter whether they live in desert, mountains, or the Northwoods. Pack size reflects the given landscape’s holding capacity.
In the western mountains of Yellowstone and surrounding areas of big, wide open country and big animals, pack sizes average larger as it takes a larger pack to kill a buffalo, for instance. In Yellowstone, the pack size averages 10 animals in comparison with our 4-5 Wisconsin wolves. This is a reflection of the landscape type and prey dynamics as well as other things, like human killing pressure, which has an effect that largely goes unreported and hence, unknown.
One thing we do know. When humans start killing wolves, it’s almost never done with knowledge of the effects to the pack structure and dynamics. It’s not every wolf that can be an alpha. It’s especially not every wolf that can be a good alpha. A good alpha wolf is hard to come by, and what do we mean by good? Well, everyone has their own interpretation, but here I’ll just say that a good alpha wolf is one that’s calm, nurturing, intelligent, accepting, protective, and good at hunting. Just like with humans, wolves have individual personalities and it takes a certain type of person to be a good leader. What qualities do you, the reader consider good for leadership?
When a hunter kills an alpha, even in a larger pack, sometimes the pack disintegrates, wreaking havoc on the landscape. When an unruly juvenile causes trouble, a mature alpha (female or male) oftentimes would be the one to straighten them out.
We’ve all heard about wolves killing livestock. In wolf country, if there’s a pack that’s staying away from farm animals, then the last thing a rancher should do is to kill a wolf. A pack that doesn’t kill livestock will usually continue to not do so and to accidently kill the alpha of a pack like this can send the whole countryside into trouble as the younger wolves without good leadership will probably begin killing livestock.
This is an example of ranchers causing their own trouble and then blaming wolves. We see the same issues in mountain lion country. Often someone will kill a lion out of fear and then depredations all of a sudden start as a young, inexperienced cat or wolf finds ranch animals.
Now, of course, this isn’t the only scenario. Many times, depredations start out of the blue and these legitimate claims need to be handled differently than the above situation. I’m just saying that if we pay attention, we can do a lot better and a lot less damage in the world.
I doubt if there’s a hunter in the woods today, who would know if they’re killing a pack leader. And, I think that some are trying to do just that. Most of what I read about hunters trying to kill wolves is that they’re hoping to kill the biggest one they can. Often, the alpha. Hunters are going after wolves ill-equipped, misinformed, and ignorant of what they’re doing and how they’re affecting wild nature. And how would a prospective wolf hunter know which member of a pack they’re killing?
The more I look at the subject, the more I’m having a hard time calling a wolf hunt a ‘hunt,’ or a wolf hunter a ‘hunter.’
I grew up a hunter. I come from a hunting family. To me, hunting is about survival and honoring animals, and about respectfully getting our needs met partially from the land immediately around us. It’s about relationship and perspective and adaptation to the environment and it’s needs.
A ‘sport hunt’ to me is ridiculous. A wolf hunt is asinine. I can barely stomach calling this a hunt. It’s more a killing. A culling. Murder. It reflects more the ignorance and/or latent hatred in the hunters.
The amount of energy and care a wolf family puts into raising just one of their pups is phenomenal. A wolf is not considered an adult until 2-3 years of age and the careful feeding, tutelage, protection and rearing of the young is a massive project. Combined with the generations it takes for wolves to work out and establish territories as well as the coming into balance with their prey, for a human to come in with some high-tech gadget and wantonly kill one of the young (or even worse a mature adult), the havoc on the landscape is immeasurable. All so someone can high-five their buddy and feed their fragile egos?
The Tribe put out an official statement, and in all the smoke of inflamed politicized emotions, name calling and finger pointing, the Tribe’s voice is one of balance and reason. I’m including the majority of their statement below as it’s said better than I can paraphrase. This was today:
Ma’iingan (my-ing-gaahn) is the Anishinaabe word for wolf. Wolves are revered as relatives in the Ojibwe lifeway. Ma’iingan serves as a clan icon – a representation of traditional governance and organization within the community.
“We are extremely disappointed with the recent decisions and we petition the State and Natural Resources Board to follow both sound and current science and follow the co-management framework laid out in the LCO v. Wisconsin [or Voigt] case,” said Voigt Intertribal Task Force Chairman John Johnson. “We are growing tired of the lack of tribal consultation on issues that directly impact our sovereign nations.”
Federal court decisions require the state to coordinate management with the plaintiff tribes in the LCO v. Wisconsin case and consult them on decisions that impact their treaty-reserved rights in treaty-ceded territories.
The controversial season begins today and ends February 28th. The “harvest” is occurring in the absence of an updated management plan, without the required input of tribes with treaty-reserved rights, and in violation of agreements made in the LCO case. It is also occurring in the absence of buffer zones around each reservation that would help safeguard packs that live partially on reservation – packs that tribes have worked hard to protect. To many Ojibwe communities, hunting in late February, a time when fur quality is poor and wolves are in their breeding season, is regarded as especially wasteful and disrespectful.”
My hope is that they’ll be respected and listened to and that we can deepen our relationships to each other and Brother Wolf.