Driving west out of Merrill on Highway 64 you’ll notice large breaks in the forest give way to farmlands.
Every couple of miles you come across big barns with tall silos. Cows and horses graze in large pens right along the highway.
One of those farms belongs to Ryan Klussendorf.
“I was born and raised on a dairy farm," said Klussendorf.
Klussendorf is a fourth generation farmer. He bought the farm near Medford in 2007.
“We dairy farm. Milk about 120 cows. Rotationally graze," he said.
Over the years, Klussendorf has had a few run-ins with wolves, including one of his cows killed by one.
“Leading up to that we had heifers out in pasture," said Klussendorf. "They were constantly getting chased out at night. They were always out on the road and miles away from the farm.”
He said it’s not just the loss of a cow and his livelihood. It’s the constant anxiety.
“You’re a farmer and you’re here to care for animals and one died under your care because of wildlife," said Klussendorf. "You get anxiety from it. You’re up at night wondering if the cows are going to be out again. Is something going to get killed again?”
Klussendorf said preventative measures aren’t enough to protect his animals. With wolves delisted, he would be able to use lethal means to protect his livestock without facing federal prosecution.
Effort to Delist Gray Wolves
Right now, there are two separate efforts to delist wolves that would impact the Great Lakes region.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the gray wolf has recovered and is currently in the process to remove the species from the endangered species list.
It’s gone through this process before and actually did delist wolves 2011.
There were a couple years of wolf hunts in Wisconsin before a federal judge put the Great Lakes gray wolves back on the Endangered Species List. An appeals court upheld that decision in 2017.
In March 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a new rule that would delist wolves in the lower 48 with the exception of the Mexican Wolf Subspecies.
While that is going on, U.S. Congressman Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) has introduced legislation to delist wolves in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wyoming.
“The best place for any wildlife species to be managed is from the state level and that’s the most important part to this bill," said Rep. Tiffany.
Going this route would avoid the courts and public comment. Similar legislation has been introduced before but never passed. Tiffany hopes this time will be different.
“It’s time to get them delisted. It really is doing terrific harm not just to pet owners and farmers, but it’s really in some ways harming property values," said Tiffany. There’s a whole series of dominoes that have fallen in regard to the wolf being at such numbers that are really not sustainable.”
Wisconsin Wolf Population Status
Of course, all this comes down to a single question: Should Gray Wolves in Wisconsin still be on the endangered species list?
“I see wolves as having recovered. They’ve achieved the population goals that were set for them far beyond the goals that were set for them," said Adrian Wydeven.
Wydeven has studied wolves in Wisconsin for more than 30 years. He’s currently a co-chair on Greenfire’s wildlife group. Greenfire is a group that supports conservation in the state by promoting science-base management of natural resources.
Wydeven said when it comes to wolves in the Great Lakes, the Endangered Species Act has done its job.
“The federal government takes over management authority when these animals are highly endangered and need additional protection, but when they’ve recovered the federal government returns the management authority to the states that traditionally have had authority for managing residential wildlife," said Wydeven.
Before settlers came to what would be Wisconsin, researchers believe anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 wolves roamed the state.
That population shot down when a state bounty was put on wolves in 1865. They were thought to be completely eradicated from Wisconsin by 1960.
The Wisconsin DNR just released its latest report on the wolf population. It estimates there are currently about 1,100 wolves roaming the state.
“The survey results from last winter show a 13 percent increase in the wolf population from the previous year. The takeaway there is that we have a very healthy and robust population in the state," said DNR Large Carnivore Specialist Randy Johnson.
Johnson said the increase was within areas already occupied by wolves. They haven’t been expanding to new areas.
“That’s been the case for several years now. That’s a strong suggestion that most of the suitable habitat for wolves in the state is occupied. Most of the areas that can support wolves are full," said Johnson.
Like Wydeven, Johnson said wolves in the state have recovered and should be removed from the Endangered Species List.
“If you look at it at the Great Lakes level, we’ve got well over 4,000 wolves in this area," Johnson said.
WXPR reached out to the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf about the latest efforts to delist wolves. Both of have been against delisting wolves.
Neither got back to us before this story aired. But recently, both have argued that states won’t manage wolves properly.
I asked Johnson about the DNR's wolf management plan. He said the DNR doesn't currenlty have one, but would create one if and when wovles are delisted.
“Delisting, taking them off the Endangered Species List does not mean they will be unprotected. They will still be protected they would ideally managed through a variety of ways including a harvest season. This would be similar to how we managed bears in the state, manage deer, manage many of our wildlife species," said Johnson. "We protect them. We limit who can hunt, the number that can be harvested. All of that is based on science and monitoring and again delisting would also allow us to more fully address conflict when and where it arises.”
At the end of the day, that’s all that farmer Ryan Klussendorf is asking for.
“Really I’m not looking for the wolves to be eradiated because you need them for the ecosystem, but they just need to be managed to a position where it’s safe for people running livestock agriculture in Wisconsin,” said Klussendorf.