MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials on Monday dramatically scaled back the number of wolves hunters can kill during the state's fall season in open defiance of its policy board.
The move marked another clash between the DNR's liberal-leaning administration and the conservative-leaning board, and it came after animal welfare advocates sued in state and federal court to block the hunt. The season is set to start Nov. 6.
The DNR’s move left board member Greg Kazmierski flabbergasted. He said state law makes clear that the board directs and supervises the department.
“They are not free to just do that,” Kazmierski said. “They’ve gone rogue, is what they’ve done.”
Department biologists originally recommended setting the quota at 130 wolves, saying they were uncertain what effects the state's unprecedented spring hunt had on the wolf population. The policy board bumped the limit to 300 animals in August, prompting outrage from conservationists and wolf advocates.
The DNR announced in a news release Monday that it was unilaterally moving the quota back to 130 animals. Under treaties established in the 1800s, the state's Chippewa tribes can claim up to half of the quota, but the Chippewa consider wolves sacred and won't hunt them. The DNR said the tribes have claimed 56 animals, leaving state-licensed hunters 74.
DNR spokeswoman Sarah Hoye said the department has a responsibility to manage wildlife scientifically, pointing to agency regulations that grant the department that authority. The 130-wolf quota will protect the wolf population as a whole, she said.
Public relations officials for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents 11 Chippewa tribes across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, didn't immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
The wolf hunt has morphed into one of the most contentious wildlife management issues Wisconsin has faced in decades. State law requires the DNR to hold a hunt between November and February whenever the animal isn't on the federal endangered species list.
Conservationists have maintained for years that the overall population is too fragile for hunting. The DNR’s latest population estimates, compiled during the winter of 2019-20, put the number of wolves in the state at around 1,000. The state's management plan calls for 350 wolves on the landscape, although DNR officials dispute that's a population goal.
The Trump administration took the final steps to remove Great Lakes wolves from the endangered species list in January. The DNR was preparing for a November season but hunter advocacy group Hunter Nation won a court order forcing the department to hold a February hunt. The group argued that the Biden administration could put wolves back on the endangered species list at any moment, robbing hunters of their season.
The DNR rushed the season framework, setting a quota for state-licensed hunters at 119 wolves. Hunters blew past the limit, killing 218 wolves in just four days and forcing an early end to the season.
Wildlife advocates flew into a rage — the Chippewa called the season a slaughter — and demanded the DNR cancel the fall season. The department's biologists said they didn't know what effects the February hunt, held during breeding season, might have had on the overall wolf population. They said the 130 number would protect the overall population.
But conservatives on the board wanted to up the limit, batting around numbers as high as 500, before settling on 300 during an August meeting. That would translate to 150 wolves for state-licensed hunters assuming the Chippewa claim 50%.
That decision prompted a coalition of wildlife groups to sue in Dane County Circuit Court in August to stop the hunt. The Chippewa filed a similar suit in federal court in Madison last month. A hearing on a preliminary injunction in that case is set for Oct. 29.
Paul Collins, Wisconsin state director of Animal Wellness Action, one of the groups that sued in state court, issued a statement saying the DNR's new quota still isn't good enough.
“The courts should shut down any more wolf killing this year and restore federal protections for wolves,” he said.
Meanwhile, the board and the DNR are in the midst of a nasty power struggle. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' administration runs the department but former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s appointees currently control the panel.
Evers saw an opening to regain control of the board in May when Chairman Fred Prehn's term expired. The governor appointed Sandy Naas to replace Prehn, a move that would give Evers appointees a majority on the board.
But Prehn has refused to step down, arguing that he doesn't have to go anywhere until the state Senate confirms Naas. Republicans control the chamber and have taken no steps toward confirming her, ensuring Walker appointees maintain their majority.
DNR officials told Prehn last month that they had no items to bring before the board at its September meeting and that no one from the department would attend. Prehn canceled the meeting, accusing department officials of playing political games.
Prehn said the board is trying to manage wolves to the 350 number in the management plan and he's frustrated with the department acting unilaterally. He said he doesn't know if his refusal to step down has anything to do with scaling back the quota. He said he hasn't spoken with anyone at the department since the August meeting.
“(The board) has always set the quota,” Prehn said. “There's no communication occurring (with the department). It's not the way to conduct business. It's crazy.”