Frequent Changes In Management Policy Escalate Wolf Debate

'University Place': Erik Olson Explores How Policy Changes Heat Up Conflicts
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Wisconsin's wolf population reached a record high in 2016.

For Erik Olson, an assistant professor of natural resources at Northland College in Ashland, the biggest weakness in Wisconsin's policy toward wolves hasn’t been any one particular policy decision. Rather, he asserted in an August 18, 2015, talk at the Madeline Island Museum, state and federal officials have mostly erred in changing their policies numerous times in only a few years.

In his talk, "The Tug Of War Over Wolves," recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place program, Olson detailed the many times wolves' conservation status in Wisconsin has changed since 2005, as well as the policies surrounding the state's controversial wolf hunt conducted over three seasons from 2012 to 2014. The hunt ended when a federal judge ordered the gray wolf to be placed back on the Endangered Species List in Great Lakes states. Additionally, state wildlife officials sometimes have had the authority to kill depredating wolves — those that kill livestock or pets — and sometimes have not.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported on June 16 that the state's wolf population had reached a record high of between 866 and 897 animals, making for a 16 percent increase over 2015. On June 20, Gov. Scott Walker called for the wolf hunt to be resumed.

These frequent policy shifts, Olson said, escalate the frustrations of farmers who see wolves threatening their livestock and hunters who view them as competing for game. Drawing on his research and others' work, Olson discussed how the state's wolf-management policies have affected the wolf population and people's opinions about it.

In his talk, Olson didn't advance any one particular policy solution — in fact, he said the "prescriptive" nature of Wisconsin's wolf hunt is part of the issue. But he did advocate for slowing down the frequent policy changes and looking for ways to cool the conflict and give everyone with a stake in the problem a chance to feel heard and empowered. 

Key facts

  • Before 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified gray wolves in Wisconsin as endangered. That year, the federal government reclassified them as threatened.

  • In early 2005, federal authorities put wolves in Wisconsin back on endangered species list, but the state was still able to get permits to kill depredating wolves. Those permits were soon revoked, then in 2006, the state got the permits back again, only to lose them a couple months later.

  • Wolves came off the endangered-species list in Wisconsin again in early 2007.

  • Wolves were re-listed in 2008, de-listed in 2009, then re-listed again later that year.

  • In early 2012, wolves were once again de-listed, and in April became a game species.

  • In 2014, following a federal court order, wolves in Wisconsin were re-listed as endangered.

  • Wisconsin's wolf population has largely been centered on public lands, but between 2003 and 2011, packs expanded moved into broader areas where there was more potential for conflicts with humans. During this time, these conflicts did increase, but then dropped following depopulation resulting from the hunting seasons. But the increase in human-wolf conflict was actually greater than the rate of wolf population growth and the growth rate of the animals' geographic range.

  • Researchers have found that increased human-wolf conflict not only results in negative attitudes about wolves, but makes people more willing to kill them illegally. Illegal killings increased when the state was not killing wolves or sanctioning a hunt.

  • Researchers in Sweden and Finland have found similar results on human-wolf conflicts: When hunters felt marginalized by European Union conservation policies, it lead to what Olson calls a radicalization of the hunting subculture.

Key quotes

  • On the rapid succession of changes to wolves' conservation status in Wisconsin: "Uff-da! So I think you can see this back and forth here. There’s an awful lot over what I would consider a relatively short period of time."

  • Describing a photo he took while on a DNR wolf-monitoring flight in Wisconsin's North Central Forest region: "This is wolf range. We've got a landscape that's a mosaic of agriculture, rural residential areas, forested areas, and so there is potential in there, and as those core forest areas, those core public lands, begin to fill up with wolves, and wolves began to expand into the less, if you will, prime habitat, there's greater potential for that conflict."

  • On the political impacts of rapidly changing wolf policies: "I would also argue that this kind of inconsistency in management authority also set the stage for the legislatively mandated wolf-harvest bill to be introduced and then passed through the state Legislature and signed into law… It was fairly a prescriptive harvest design, which I think probably led to some court challenges at both the state and federal level."

  • Summing up other research on conservation conflicts: "When two stakeholder groups view a conflict as a win-or-lose situation, it will eventually result in what in game theory is a zero-sum game, where one stakeholder wins and the other loses…. [T]o move from these win-lose games into the win-win or compromise, the two groups, in order to cooperate, need to actually realize that it's a shared problem."

  • On the need to engage people from outside the hunting and farming communities: "What's not talked about enough is also empowering non-consumptive users [those who do not harvest fish or wildlife]. Non-consumptive users obviously want a voice at the table in wildlife management, and I think it's important to find avenues for non-consumptive users to continue to provide a voice in wildlife management, as well as fund wildlife management, because currently a lot of wildlife management is funded through fees for licensing and permits from hunters and anglers."
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