Researchers said Monday up to a third of Wisconsin’s gray wolves may have been killed earlier this year after the animals were delisted under the Endangered Species Act and the state allowed a public hunt of them to go forward.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimated in a new study between 313 to 323 wolves were likely killed by humans between April 2020 and April 2021. Adrian Treves, a professor at UW-Madison and a lead author of the study, said the figures should raise concerns about further hunting seasons in the state.
“Although the [Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources] is aiming for a stable population, we estimate the population actually dropped significantly,” Treves said in a statement.
The findings come just months after wildlife officials in the state were forced to end a legal hunt of the wolves after just three days. In about 60 hours, hunters killed at least 216 wolves, far surpassing a threshold of 119 set by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The figures shocked conservationists, who had sued to stop the hunt saying it would take place during the wolves’ breeding season when they are particularly vulnerable, The New York Times reported.
Many of the additional wolf deaths, the researchers estimated, came from what’s known as “cryptic poaching,” when hunters hide evidence of the killings. They estimate about 695 to 751 wolves are left in the state, down from at least 1,034 last year.
Treves and his co-authors estimate the wolf populations could recover in one or two years without any further hunting. Wisconsin state law requires a wolf hunt to go ahead between November and February when there is no federal prohibition against it.
The Associated Press notes some scientists have cautioned more evidence was needed to prove wolf populations had fallen so dramatically in a few short months.
The hunt came after the Trump administration removed wolves from the Endangered Species Act after they were first protected in 1974, a decision that went into effect in January. Then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the animals had “exceeded all conservation goals for recovery” after they were nearly wiped out from the lower 48 states following decades of hunting and extermination efforts.
Wolves were reintroduced by the federal government into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. Populations boomed, and wolf management has been a contentious federal issue for decades.
After their removal from the Endangered Species Act earlier this year, wolf conservation goals are essentially left up to states to manage, although they must submit five-year monitoring plans to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency estimates there are about 6,000 wolves in the lower 48 states, spread mostly across Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin.