What Happened to Wisconsin's Wolves?
Wisconsin’s wolf population has been in the news for the past few months. With efforts to remove wolves from the endangered species list and calls to reinstitute an organized wolf hunt, it seems timely to revisit what originally happened to Wisconsin’s native wolf population.
On December 1, 1955, David Christie, and his friend Robert Salentine, both of Milwaukee, were out in the woods near Crandon hunting deer. They had a tree stand set up on the edge of an evergreen swamp but were not having much luck. Christie went up into the stand while Salentine went out to try and drive some deer toward the stand.
After sitting in the tree stand for over two hours Christie was starting to feel the chill. It was then that he spotted a wolf bounding out of the swamp. Christie did not hesitate. He took aim with his 30-30 rifle and dropped the wolf with a single shot just behind the shoulder.
There were fewer than fifty wolves living in Wisconsin at the time Christie took his shot, and all of them were in the extreme northern part of the state. It was not until 1957 that wolves were listed as a protected species in Wisconsin, but by then it was too late. According to author Richard Thiel, the last native wolf was killed near Cornucopia in 1958. By 1960 Wolves were declared eradicated from the state. As debates rage over reinstituting legal hunting of Wisconsin’s restored wolf population, it is instructive to revisit what happened in the past.
Wolves have been living in Wisconsin since the last Ice Age. Native Americans lived alongside the wolf and had great respect for the animals and the cycle of life that they symbolized. Europeans, on the other hand, feared the wolf and saw it as a symbol of death. It was the European attitude that American settlers brought with them to the territory.
When Americans first started settling in Wisconsin there were anywhere from 3000 to 5000 wolves in the region. Under pressure from farmers in the southern part of the state, in 1865 the legislature passed a bounty law. The state would pay hunters five dollars for each wolf killed. By 1900, no wolves remained in the southern part of the state but hunting deer for sport was becoming increasingly popular in the north. Therefore, to exterminate the competition, the wolf bounty was raised to twenty dollars. As Aldo Leopold said, the thought was that fewer wolves meant more deer, and no wolves at all would equal a hunter’s paradise. Leopold realized the error of this thinking as wolves were exterminated and deer began to suffer from out-of-balance populations.
Although wildlife managers of the time had the best of intentions, they eventually realized that bounties were an archaic practice that do not work. According to U.W. Madison’s Adrian Treves, predations on livestock also increase when wolves are hunted. Stable wolf packs prefer to hunt deer and avoid humans, but survivors of a pack weakened by hunting might go for more predictable prey in fenced pastures.
In 1955, David Christie collected his $20 bounty from Forest County. While in Crandon several people offered to buy the carcass from him. The prize was too great for him to part with. He took it home to Milwaukee and had one of Wisconsin’s last native wolves mounted as a trophy.