According to a new study, the Trump administration’s move last autumn to delist grey wolves from endangered classification resulted in a 30 percent decline in Wisconsin’s wolf population.
More than 300 wolves may have been killed this winter as a result of both authorized hunting and other factors such as illicit poaching, according to scientists. The state’s wolves may be in jeopardy, according to the researchers, who published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ on July 5.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources aimed for a hunting season that “did not result in any yearly growth or reduction in the state’s wolf population.” Wolf hunts are yearly gatherings of hunters who get together to hunt the animals for enjoyment, even though the practice has grown contentious in many nations. According to Adrian Treves, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of the new results, the wolf’s population objective of no change was not attained.
“In comparison to previous wolf-hunting seasons across the world, the population drop was enormous,” he says. “We are informing our state government that the populace is more susceptible than they appear to be aware of.”
Gray wolves have quietly risen in population in the Great Lakes region since they were protected under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s. The Trump administration announced in late October 2020 that grey wolves had recovered in the lower 48 states and that federal protections under the Endangered Species Act will be lifted on January 4, 2021.
Wisconsin set a quota of 119 wolves for hunters when it staged its first wolf hunt since 2014 in February. Within three days, however, hunters had surpassed the state’s limit, killing 218 wolves and overshooting it by 83 percent.
Since the 1990s, federal safeguards have been introduced, reduced, and withdrawn several times in Wisconsin, according to Treves. Scientists have been able to track wolf survival through many phases of delisting because of this “rollercoaster” of restrictions.
Treves and his colleagues used state population projections from April 2017 through 2020, as well as information on how many wolves were officially killed by hunters this winter, to determine the impact of eliminating grey wolf protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The team has already discovered evidence that wolf poaching rises when safeguards are loosened. They noticed that the number of radio-collared Mexican grey wolves disappearing in Arizona and New Mexico without explanation rose immediately after restrictions were altered before the transmitters’ batteries died out, and far from state boundaries, where the wolves may be moving out of range.
Poachers, according to Treves and his colleagues, “feel emboldened and perceive less value in each wolf.” Poachers may be removing radio collars to escape prosecution, but they may be more ready to kill wolves at these times of insufficient protection.
The scientists utilized models to assess wolf numbers for the current study. Poaching, rather than legal hunting, is thought to be responsible for approximately a third of the drop in the state’s grey wolf population since November, according to the researchers. By April 15, the researchers calculated that around 695 to 751 grey wolves remained alive in Wisconsin due to legal kills and other fatalities, implying a population drop of at least 27 to 33 percent from the previous year.
These are, however, optimistic predictions; the real population might be far smaller.
Treves explained, “We were utilizing cautious predictions from each model.” One of his and his colleagues’ hypotheses was that the proportion of wolves that would vanish following delisting would be similar to prior eras. However, wolves have become a more divisive and politically sensitive topic in recent years, according to Treves, which might contribute to an increase in poaching.
His team also thought that poaching was carried out in the same manner as in prior years. The legal hunt, on the other hand, allowed for novel techniques such as following wolves at night, by snowmobile, or with packs of hounds.
“If not adequately overseen and managed, hunters utilizing these new tactics can wipe out a population in a matter of weeks,” he adds. “When you add it all up, it was like a perfect storm of wolf killing.”
“We may be in a darker situation for the wolf population in the state if poachers are utilizing these tactics as well,” Treves adds.
Another issue is that the kill occurred during wolf mating season, so it’s unknown how many wolves were able to breed this year. Treves and his colleagues are now calculating how many pups were born to wolf packs that survived the hunt, as well as the population’s status in November when Wisconsin prepares to undertake another hunt.
He and his colleagues advise the state to postpone any wolf killings until data on how much the previous hunt interrupted the mating season is obtained and the population has had a year or two to recover.
“This study did an excellent job of compiling and evaluating public data on the size of the Wisconsin wolf population, human-wolf offtake, and the pace at which radio-collared wolves vanished,” says the author. In an email, Scott Creel, an ecologist at Montana State University in Bozeman who studies large carnivore conservation biology but was not involved in the current study, stated. “Unsurprisingly, they discovered that the combination of unlawful killing plus a massive legal killing spree that started on the first day of the season is extremely unlikely to meet the stated management goal.”
He went on to say that the data show that eliminating limitations on legal wolf slaughter does not reduce the rate of illicit killing.
“Instead, giving a signal that the species is not appreciated (by placing a cheap price on the hunting license and no restriction on the number of animals that may be killed) does precisely that,” Creel added.