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Wolves in Wisconsin

Attention: On Oct. 29, 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they will be removing gray wolves from the federal endangered species list for the lower 48 states. The rule will be published in the Federal Register on Nov. 3 and will take effect 60 days after on Jan. 4, 2021.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources welcomes the responsibility of again managing wolves in Wisconsin. The department has successfully done so for decades and will continue to follow the science and laws that influence our management. All wolf management, including hunting, will be conducted in a transparent and deliberative process, in which public and tribal participation will be encouraged.

The DNR will continue to partner with USDA-Wildlife Services to address wolf conflicts in Wisconsin. If you suspect wolves in the depredation of livestock, pets or hunting dogs, or if wolves are exhibiting threatening or dangerous behavior, contact USDA-Wildlife Services staff immediately. If in northern Wisconsin, call 1-800-228-1368 or 715-369-5221; if in southern Wisconsin, call 1-800-433-0663 or 920-324-4514. Until delisting takes effect, it remains unlawful to shoot a wolf unless there is an immediate threat to human safety. Following the delisting effective date, the DNR may implement all abatement measures as applicable to each situation, which may include lethal control.

A collared wolf standing in a spruce stand
Photo courtesy of Michelle Woodford

What's New

2019–20 Wolf count data summaries available

The 2019–20 Wolf monitoring report is now available and can be located under the “Reports” section below.

Information for Volunteer Trackers

Trackers can find survey materials and maps under the "Monitoring" section below and within the "Volunteer Tracking Program" section. Any questions about the tracking program can be directed to Tracking Program Manager Shannon McNamara.

FAQs

Frequently asked questions

How many wolves are there in Wisconsin? Where do they live?

Please see the information under the "Wolves in Wisconsin" section below for a general overview of wolf numbers and range in the state. You can also find more detail in our annual Wolf Monitoring Report, available under the “Reports” section, below.

Did the DNR release wolves into Wisconsin?

No. Unlike the famous wolf reintroductions in Yellowstone National Park, wolves were never released into Wisconsin by humans. After wolves were given protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, existing wolf populations in northern Minnesota rebounded and naturally expanded their range into northern Wisconsin.

Are wolves native to Wisconsin?

Yes. It’s estimated that there may have been 3,000-5,000 wolves in Wisconsin prior to European settlement. For more information on the history of wolves, check out the  "Wolves in Wisconsin" section below.

How big are wolves? What do they eat?

For an overview of wolf biology, including diet, check out the "Biology" section below.

Do wolves reduce deer numbers?

The relationship between wolves and deer is complex. Generally, winter weather and human harvest, especially antlerless harvest, have greater impacts on deer populations than predation over the long term. Deer herds in northern Wisconsin have increased significantly in recent years, even with an established wolf population, suggesting that wolves do not limit deer population growth. However, deer may alter their behavior, movements and/or habitat use in response to the presence of wolves.

Wolves are skilled at identifying vulnerable prey, and tend to target individuals that are old, young, sick or otherwise weakened. Hence, deer removed by wolves are less likely to survive and less likely to produce offspring than the deer that remain. The average age of white-tailed deer killed by wolves was 6.5 years in Minnesota, for example, whereas the average age of does taken by hunters was 2.5 years in this same area. This targeting of vulnerable animals serves to reduce the impact of wolves on long-term deer population dynamics. It has also been suggested that wolves might reduce CWD transmission rates and prevalence by removing sick individuals.

An interesting and more detailed article on the relationship between deer hunting and wolves was published by a Minnesota biologist in 2009.

Are wolves dangerous to people?

Just like any wild animal, wolves tend to avoid humans. Verified cases of healthy wolves attacking humans are extremely rare, and there have been no documented cases in Wisconsin.

Most incidents of wolf aggression toward people have involved wolves that have become habituated to people or involved domestic dogs. To avoid wolves becoming habituated to people, it is important to never feed or approach wolves in the wild. For more information on living with wolves as neighbors, please see the “Living With Wolves” document under the “Wolf Conflicts” section below.

What should I do if I encounter a wolf?

Wolves generally avoid people and rarely pose a threat to human safety. However, if you do encounter a wolf, do not approach, feed or in any way attempt to interact with the wolf and it will generally move away on its own. If the wolf does not move off on its own, do not run as this may initiate a chase response by the wolf. Try to maintain eye contact with the wolf, act aggressively, shout and back away slowly.

Can I shoot a wolf to protect my livestock or pet?

No. Wolves are currently listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, which does not allow them to be shot unless there is a threat to human safety.

For more information on dealing with nuisance wolf issues, check out the "Wolf Conflicts" section below. If you suspect wolves in the depredation of livestock or pets, or if wolves are exhibiting threatening or dangerous behavior, please contact USDA-Wildlife Services staff from one of the numbers below. 

USDA WS District Map

 

Wolves in Wisconsin

Graph and image representing wolf abundance increase and range expansion in Wisconsin from 1980 to 2020.
(Open the tabs below for more info about the current & past status of wolves in Wisconsin)

 

Wolves Today

The 2018-2019 midwinter count estimated that there is a minimum of 914-978 individual wolves and 243 packs in Wisconsin. The count is conducted in winter when snow cover allows efficient tracking, and it represents the low point in the annual cycle. Wolf numbers increase each year following the spring breeding period. The complete 2018-2019 Wolf Monitoring Report is available under the “Reports” tab above.

As is clear from the animation above, the increase in wolf numbers over the past 30 years has been largely due to range expansion. In portions of the northern and central forest, where wolves have been established for many years, territorial behavior has served to keep wolf numbers fairly stable. The leveling off of wolf numbers over the past few years suggests that wolves may occupy all suitable habitat in Wisconsin.

History of Wolves in Wisconsin
Pre-management

Prior to European settlement, 3,000-5,000 wolves are believed to have been found throughout Wisconsin. During the 1800s, unregulated hunting by settlers extirpated bison, elk, caribous and moose in the state and nearly eliminated white-tailed deer as well.

As prey species became scarce, wolves increasingly began to feed on livestock. This led the state legislature to pass a bounty on wolves in 1865. The state bounty on wolves persisted until 1957 when wolves were classified by the state as a protected species. Elimination of bounties, however, made little difference for wolves as they had already been exterminated across most of Wisconsin; by 1950 only a few packs remained in the far northern part of the state.

Protection

As a result of habitat loss, declines in prey populations and unregulated harvest, wolf populations declined until the species was declared extirpated from Wisconsin in 1960. Wide-spread declines among wildlife species eventually led to greater public scrutiny of unregulated harvests and increased support for conservation measures. The culmination of this changing ethic was the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, which enacted significant protections for species at risk of extinction. In 1974, the value of gray wolves was recognized by the federal government via its inclusion on the list of endangered species.

Recovery: Back from the brink

After federal protections were established for wolves, the wolf population in Minnesota began to increase and expand their range. In the mid to late 1970s, this expansion led to wolves naturally recolonizing northwest Wisconsin and the first breeding pack confirmed in Douglas County in 1978.

While initial population growth was slow, by the mid-1990s Wisconsin's wolf population began to increase and expand steadily. Wolves in the Western Great Lakes region surpassed federal recovery goals in the winter of 1999-2000, when Wisconsin and Michigan had a combined total of 100 wolves for 5 consecutive years, and the population in Minnesota remained stable or continued to grow.

Wolves would not be able to thrive if it was not for the support of the people that live near them every day. Thankfully, studies show that Wisconsinites generally value and are in favor of wolves (Public attitude of wolves (draft) [PDF])

Wolf Management in Wisconsin

The recovery of wolves in the Western Great Lakes region stands as a testament to the cooperation of federal, state and tribal agencies, as well as other conservation partners working together to support wolf recovery. When evaluating the history of wolf management in Wisconsin, it is important to understand that conservation decisions are made at both federal or state levels, though federal law supersedes state law.

Graph showing the wolf population and federal conservation status from 1980-2020.
Federal Classification

Wolves in the Western Great Lakes region surpassed federal recovery goals in the winter of 1999-2000, when Wisconsin and Michigan had a combined total of 100 wolves for 5 consecutive years, in addition to the population in Minnesota being stable or growing (Wolf Recovery Plan) [PDF].

However, the federal status of wolves has changed a number of times over the past two decades, and are currently listed as an endangered species on the federal Endangered Species Act. This is of importance since Wisconsin does not have management authority for wolves when they are classified as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The animation below provides a chronology of federal classification for gray wolves in Wisconsin.

State Classification & Management

As Wisconsin's wolf population met and exceeded recovery goals in the 1990s, biologists recognized the need to develop a state-driven approach to management that would support a healthy and persistent wolf population, and identify goals for wolf management in the state. DNR staff worked closely with partners to develop the 1999 Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan [PDF] and later added an addendum in 2007.

Among other goals, this plan establishes a population objective of 350 wolves statewide, which Wisconsin has surpassed since 2004. Once wolves are removed from the federal list of endangered species, this plan will be updated and revised to reflect our increased understanding of the biological and social issues relevant to wolf management.

Biology

Wolf Biology

Taxonomy & Physical Description
  • Kingdom - Animals - Animalia
  • Phylum - Vertebrates - Craniata
  • Class - Mammals - Mammalia
  • Order - Carnivores - Carnivora
  • Family - Dogs - Canidae
  • Scientific Name: Canis lupus

Gray wolves (Canis lupus), also referred to as timber wolves, are the largest wild members of the canid (dog) family. Their close relatives, coyotes (Canis latrans) are sometimes called brush wolves but are not true wolves. Wolves in Wisconsin can weigh between 50-100 pounds. Males tend to be larger than females averaging 75 and 60 pounds respectively.

Wolves have many color variations but tend to be buff-colored tans grizzled with gray and black (although they can also be black or white). In winter, their fur becomes darker on the neck, shoulders and rump. Their ears are rounded and relatively short, and the muzzle is large and blocky. Wolves generally hold their tail straight out from their body or point them downward.

Identification
Wolf/coyote comparison
Diet

Wolves are primarily carnivorous. A study in the early 1980s showed that the diet of Wisconsin wolves was comprised of 55% white-tailed deer, 16% beavers, 10% snowshoe hares and 19% other small game (mice, squirrels, muskrats, etc). Deer comprise over 80% of a wolf's diet throughout the year, but beavers become more important during the spring and fall when beavers are dispersing and spend more time on land, which makes them more vulnerable and easier to catch.

In the winter, when beavers are in their lodges or are moving safely beneath the ice, wolves rely more heavily on deer and hares. Wolves' summer diets are more diverse, including a greater variety of small mammals. Studies also show that berries can actually comprise over half of a wolf's diet during mid-summer.

Breeding Behavior

Wolves reach sexual maturity when they are two years old, but seldom breed until they are older. Typically the dominant pair in each pack breed. Thus, a pack generally only produces one litter each year, averaging five to six pups.

In Wisconsin, wolves breed in late winter (late January and February). The female delivers the pups two months later in a den she digs, but may sometimes choose a hollow log or abandoned beaver den instead. Wolf pups are born deaf and blind and weigh about 1 pound. They grow rapidly during the first three months, gaining about 3 pounds each week. Pups begin to see when two weeks old and can hear after three weeks. At this time they become very active and playful.

Wolf pups at a den site
Wolf pups at a den site.

When about six weeks old, the pups are weaned and the adults begin to bring them meat. Adults eat the meat at a kill site often miles away from the pups, then return and regurgitate the food for the pups to eat. The hungry pups jump and nip at the adults' muzzles to stimulate regurgitation.

The pack abandons the den when the pups are six to eight weeks old. The female carries the pups in her mouth to the first of a series of rendezvous sites or nursery areas. These sites are the focus of the pack's social activities for the summer months and are usually near water.

By August, the pups wander up to two to three miles from the rendezvous sites and use them less often. The pack abandons the sites in September or October and the pups, now almost full-grown, follow the adults.

Pack Behavior
Wolf Pack Aerial Photo
An aerial photo of a Wisconsin wolf pack.

Wolves are social animals, living in a family group or pack. In summer a Wisconsin pack usually consists of six to ten animals -- a breeding pair, pups from the previous year (yearlings) and the current year's pups. Throughout the summer and fall, mortality and dispersal remove wolves from packs such that the average pack size declines. In Wisconsin, average pack size is remarkably consistent across winters at around four wolves per pack. The breeding pair is in charge of the pack, raising the young, selecting denning and rendezvous sites, locating and capturing prey and maintaining and defending their territory.

A non-breeding wolf can attain breeding status by either staying with its natal pack and biding its time until it is able to attain breeding position within the pack, or it can disperse to try and locate a mate and establish its own pack in vacant territory. Both strategies involve risk; a bider may be out-competed by another wolf and never achieve dominance whereas dispersers face the risk of traveling great distances, as can be viewed by the animation below.

A pack's territory may cover 20-120 square miles, about one-tenth the size of an average Wisconsin county. Neighboring wolf packs may share a common border, but their territories seldom overlap more than a mile. A wolf that trespasses into another pack's territory risks being killed by that pack. Wolves mark their territory boundary with urine and feces. Howling also helps a pack alert other wolves to their presence and is also used to identify and reunite pack mates that may become separated within their large territory.

Monitoring

Wolf monitoring

Program Overview

The DNR monitors wolves year-round using a combination of methods:

  • Winter track surveys: DNR staff and volunteers conduct mid-winter snow track surveys in areas with known or suspected wolf packs.
  • GPS collars: Data from collared wolves allow biologists to estimated wolf pack territory size and the number of wolves in each pack. Long-term, these data also allow estimates of wolf survival.
  • Public observations: Reported wolf observations by the public, especially outside area currently occupied by wolves, help biologists identify packs in "new" parts of the state and better define wolf distribution.
  • Depredations & wolf mortalities: Biologists monitor wolf depredations of livestock, pets and hunting dogs, as well as wolves that are found dead. This information contributes to our understanding of wolf distribution in the state.
  • Summer howl surveys: Biologists and volunteers use howl surveys each summer to estimate the percentage of wolf packs that successfully produce young that year.
Volunteer Tracking Program

Carnivores are often secretive and occupy very large home ranges, making it difficult to monitor them by direct observation. However, we can still estimate the abundance and distribution of carnivores by observing the number and location of their tracks. In 1979, the DNR began conducting formal wolf track surveys as part of the state wolf monitoring program, and volunteers have contributed to these surveys since 1995.

Survey Blocks

The state has been divided up into survey blocks where wolves and other carnivores are, or are likely to occur. There may be a block in your area or where you visit often.

Each trained tracker is assigned a survey block of about 200 square miles. The survey block is designated by a system of roads or natural boundaries such as lakes and rivers. Not all portions of the survey block will contain suitable habitat for forest carnivores. The tracker is responsible for surveying the forested areas of his or her block for forest carnivores. Surveys are conducted by slowly driving the survey block one to three days after fresh snowfalls. All recent sets of tracks of medium and large forest carnivores are recorded along these snow-covered roads.

Carnivore tracking blocks

Use the drop-down menu to open a survey block map (PDF).

 
Carnivore Tracker Forms

Forms are available as online forms or PDF

Become a Tracker

Help monitor Wisconsin's wolf population by conducting winter track surveys!

To participate you will be expected to:

Data received from this program is used to supplement DNR surveys and provide the public with an opportunity to be involved in determining the status of our wolf population.

To see the most recent wolf monitoring reports check out the "Reports" tab above.

For more information on the Volunteer Tracking program contact:

Shannon McNamara
Tracking Program Manager
715-401-9073

Conflicts

Wolf conflicts

Although wolves are an important part of the ecosystem, conflicts with humans are inevitable and additional measures to abate damages are sometimes necessary. The DNR collaborates with USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services to investigate reported conflicts with wolves and implement adaptive abatement measures. Furthermore, the department also offers compensatory reimbursements to those who have experienced verified loss through the Wildlife Damage Program.

What to do if you suspect a wolf depredation:
  1. Immediately contact USDA-Wildlife Services to conduct an investigation. Phone lines are monitored seven days a week so it is important to leave a message if no one answers the phone;
  2. Provide as much detail as possible;
  3. Do not move or unnecessarily handle a carcass;
  4. Preserve any evidence at the kill site by covering any carcass with a tarp or other covering to discourage scavengers and preserve any tracks, scat, blood or bone fragments;
  5. Reduce any unnecessary human activity near the depredation site.

Advisory Committee

Wolf Advisory Committee

The Wolf Advisory Committee, a diverse group representing government agencies, non-governmental organizations, tribal interests and conservation groups, meets to discuss issues relating to wolf management. The committee advises the Wildlife Policy Team on a variety of topics such as hunting regulations, conflict management, surveys and research priorities.

Committee meeting information

The Wolf Advisory Committee has not convened since management authority of wolves was reverted back to the federal government.