Wisconsin Wolf Numbers Do Not Add Up

By Scott Stankowski - February 1, 2013
With Wisconsin’s inaugural gray wolf season in the books, now is a time for reflection and a look at the hypothetical numbers. Hypothetical numbers is really all we know about the wolf in Wisconsin. The number may be much higher than the DNR is willing to admit. My hypothesis is that the DNR is reluctant to tell the true story for fear of a real uproar among sportsmen, especially in the north and central parts of the state.
Back in the 80's, the DNR collared as many wolves as they could and once the population grew they made sure every pack had at least one member collared. Once the population exploded, they were unable to keep up with that plan. In addition to keeping track of wolves through collaring, the department also kept track through a very rudimentary (by scientific means) system of tracks on roads and howling responses. The wolf numbers were fairly low for a while, primarily due to parvovirus. But somewhere along the line in the late 80's, wolves developed a genetic resistance to the disease. The estimated population in 1985 was 83 wolves. By the year 2000, it was said to be 248.

A wolf’s average lifespan is 4 years, although they can live up to 13 years in the wild. Wolf pack size varies, but according to all modern research that I have found, the general population in any area doubles during the spring birthing season and reaches a seasonal low in the winter time. A female will average 5 pups per birth. According to DNR sources, prior to the 2012 season, Wisconsin had 880 wolves in 213 packs.

Doing some simple math, 213 multiplied by 5 equals 1065. Add that to 880 and you have more than double. That is if the 213 pack number is accurate, which it probably is on the low side. I wanted to know what average mortality issues were. In an undisturbed pack on Isle Royale, wolf biologist Rolf Peterson reported a 24% mortality rate. A similar study was done in Minnesota, but included things like poaching, car kills and depredation cases. That study conducted by Todd Fuller in 1989 suggested a 29% mortality rate.

Now I am no math scholar, but even I can figure out some problems in the Wisconsin estimates. Let’s go back to 2005 when the population was estimated to be around 435. Double that for new births and you get 870, subtract 30% to be more than honest and you get an estimated 2006 population of 609 wolves. Following this mathematical trend, since there were no notable outbreaks of disease, lack of food for wolves or harsh winters, (in other words they had it made) and you get 853 for 2007, 1,194 for 2008, 1,672 for 2009, 2,340 in 2010, 3,276 in 2011 and finally 4,586 this past year. I cannot say that these numbers are accurate, but at least I am being honest with you and showing you the math that came up with these numbers. Of course it is interpreted from other states as I could not find anything related to Wisconsin, as that is all a big secret.

When the 2012-2013 season was over, the DNR was surprised. How so? Prior to this season, they figured that of the 892 licensed hunters that there would be a 10% success ratio, which would have been roughly 90 wolves. The season ended two months early with a 13% success rate. We must have really great first time hunters in the state. Either that or the wolf numbers are close to as high as I figure. I wonder what the success rate would have been had the season gone to full term.

I also remember when the poaching of wolves made front page news. Now you have to search to find that answer or wait for an editorial by someone else who actually believes that the reported number of wolves shot was spot on. I for one did not just fall off the turnip truck and believe the number of poached wolves to be higher. The DNR is too undermanned with all the cuts to be able to put the boots on the ground and monitor it more closely.

It will be interesting to see what the estimated number of wolves will be this next year as we do know of 117 that were legally killed by hunters in addition to the 124 killed through reported poaching, car kills, landowners and wildlife agents. Those 241 wolves would make up 27% of the population. If we strictly go by math, we should be at 1,300 wolves at the beginning of the season next year based off the DNR’s numbers from this prior season.

I think it is about time the sportsmen of the state are given the truth in numbers. If not then we need to do the math ourselves and demand to be heard

Author Scott Stankowski
Scott Stankowski
Scott Stankowski is the senior outdoor writer for centralwisconsinsports.net and produces weekly articles, typically highlighting getting kids active in the outdoors. His family prides itself on living off of the land. Scott also takes the mantra into the classroom where he teaches environmental science at Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High School. Scott and his sons have won numerous titles in turkey and deer calling at the state level. Scott and his sons have a national outdoor television show titled Growin' Up Wild and can be found on Facebook.