Living in Madison, it's easy to forget the darker side of conservation. I'm not a hunter, and I certainly don't own any livestock. I might worry that a coyote could attack my outdoor cat, but that's about as wild as my neighborhood gets. So when Wisconsin's gray wolf population is in the news, as it has been a lot recently, it's tempting to side with the wolves. After all, wolves are officially an endangered species (for now). As a good conservationist, I should support them – right?
However, conservation isn't that simple. For example, one of my friends is from northern Wisconsin, and is an avid hunter. When I brought up wolf conservation to him, he was suddenly terse. In his area, wolves have been responsible for killing livestock, pets and hunting dogs. He said that wolves were definitely unpopular in his area, and that he knows people who have tried to kill a wolf. It's not as easy to support wolves when they've killed a hunting hound or a valuable calf. The Wisconsin wolf debate exemplifies the complexity of conservation decisions and the social aspect of environmental policy.
From an ecological standpoint, the recovery of wolves in Wisconsin has been a resounding success. Wolves were effectively absent in the state by the 1970s after decades of killing by European settlers (in fact, there used to be a bounty on wolves to encourage their eradication). However, in 1974, wolves were listed as an endangered species by the federal government, and the following years saw an increase in their numbers. According to the Wisconsin DNR, there were between 537 and 564 wolves in the state as of late 2008, while others put the number above 600. This is well above the WDNR's goal of 350 individuals, as stated in its 1999 management plan.
In response to this success, wolves have recently been on and off the federal endangered species list. First removed in 2007, they were re-listed in September 2008. Wolves were again delisted in May of this year, but placed back on the list in late June.
The recent back-and-forth listing and delisting of the wolves comes at a time when wolves are especially protective of their pups, from mid June to late September. During July of this year, eight dogs were killed and five injured by wolves, according to the WDNR. Recent letters to the editor in the Wisconsin State Journal have expressed frustration with wolf kills, including a letter that gave information about a wolf attack on a dog "for people in Madison and other cities far away from where wolves live who can't imagine efforts to regulate them." That is, those in the city have a much different perception of wolves than those who share their habitat.
The challenge of wolf management, therefore, is finding a solution that protects wolves without alienating the public. Earlier this year, I spoke to Thomas Heberlein, former chair of the Rural Sociology Department at UW-Madison who is now a professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. In his work studying public perception of wolves, he has noticed an attitude of the "dominance of urban society" in rural areas. Heberlein said he supported a wolf hunt as a way to control populations and to reduce rural powerlessness.
It may seem counterintuitive to start hunting an animal that has been under protection for decades. But conservation is so challenging, and so important, because it needs to take into account not only biodiversity, but social, economic and political factors as well. The fate of Wisconsin's wolves is not only a matter of environmental policy, but of public policy as well.