[Reprinted from original]
The population of gray wolves in Wisconsin was estimated at 972 last winter, a year-over-year decrease of 14%, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
The number of wolf packs was down too, from 292 in 2020-21 to 288 in 2021-22 and the average pack size dropped from 3.8 to 3.2, respectively.
The data, released Wednesday at the Natural Resources Board meeting in Ashland, gives the first look at the state's wolf population since a February 2021 hunting and trapping season killed 218 wolves.
Subsequent litigation in Dane County shelved a planned fall 2021 wolf season and a federal lawsuit resulted in the wolf being placed back under protections of the Endangered Species Act in February 2022.
As a result, the DNR was able to conduct without interruption a full winter of monitoring and data collection for the 2021-22 population estimate, according to Randy Johnson, DNR large carnivore specialist.
The wolf population estimate is derived from a statistical calculation called a pack occupancy model. The DNR converted to the model in 2020; from 1979 to 2019 it used a minimum wolf count.
Wolf population declines expected since Wisconsin held a hunting and trapping season
Data inputs for the model include reports from winter tracking surveys, information from GPS-collared wolves to estimate area occupied by wolf packs, average pack territory size and zone-specific average winter pack sizes.
About 500 surveys across 16,779 miles were completed last winter, according to the DNR.
Johnson thanked the volunteers, tribal members and DNR staff who contributed to the work, which resulted in the third-most miles covered since 2000.
The average wolf pack territory in Wisconsin last winter was 66 square miles, according to the report.
The declines noted in the 2021-22 wolf report can be attributed to the February 2021 hunting and trapping season, Johnson said.
A similar response in the wolf population was observed the only other time the state held wolf hunting and trapping seasons, from 2012 to 2014.
State-licensed hunters and trappers killed 83% more than their allotted quota in the February 2021 season. The season was unprecedented in timing, since it was held during the wolf breeding season and included the take of pregnant females.
As a result, the declines detailed in the 2021-22 winter wolf report were expected.
However, the wolf population remains strong, Johnson said.
"Even in areas where there was concentrated harvest, we still see wolf packs occupying generally the same areas," Johnson said. "Were there local changes? Absolutely could be."
Johnson also said action by U.S. Department of Agriculture trappers in 2021 to remove wolves around farms where livestock had been killed has led to a 40% reduction in depredation this year.
Wisconsin's wolf management plan hasn't been changed in 23 years
The department has yet to update the state's wolf management plan. The current plan was written in 1999 and modified slightly in 2007.
Views on wolf management have historically varied widely among Wisconsin citizens. Results of a social science survey on public attitudes toward wolves conducted by the DNR earlier this year have not been released.
It's also not clear when a draft of the new plan will be released for public review; several previously announced target dates have passed.
But state's wolf population is 'healthy,' and 'biologically secure'
Overall, Johnson gave a positive review of the state's wolf population.
"Despite the observed decline in wolf abundance (over the last year), there are several indicators that the Wisconsin wolf population is healthy and biologically secure in the state, such as the distribution of packs and number of packs," Johnson said.
Johnson said the agency is committed to maintaining a sustainable and healthy wolf population in the future. The work will continue to include extensive monitoring of the population.
Following a federal court ruling on Feb. 10, gray wolves are listed as an endangered species in the lower 48 states (excluding the northern Rocky Mountains region). As such, wolves are federally protected.
Harvest and lethal depredation control are prohibited. It is unlawful to shoot a wolf unless there is an immediate threat to human safety.
A full report on Wisconsin wolf management, including the 2021-22 population estimate, is expected to be posted to the DNR's website in the near future.