After Wisconsin sportsmen and women participated in the first wolf hunt of the modern era, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials said this week that wolf numbers have declined only slightly compared to last year - something that hasn't happened very often since the mid-1980s.
They said the count indicates a stable wolf population.
The 2013 Wisconsin wolf count, conducted by DNR staff and trained volunteers across the "wolf range" in the state, indicates there are a minimum of 809-834 wolves.
The count - done during the winter months - found the state now has 215 wolf packs and 15 lone wolves.
This count compares to the 2012 wolf tally that found a minimum of 815-880 wolves, with 213 packs and 20 lone wolves. The data will be one part of wolf management strategy that will be worked out at the agency in the next few months.
David MacFarland, DNR carnivore specialist, said the count is done through a combination of radio-telemetry tracking of collar-equipped wolves, observations from airplane pilots and snow tracking counts done by staff and volunteers.
Wolf counts have been conducted by the DNR and volunteers across Wisconsin since the winter of 1979-80 when only 25 wolves were counted in the state. The 2013 count represents only the fourth time since 1985 that no increase was detected in the wolf population from the previous year.
The wolf population generally increased at a rate of 20 percent or more during the 1990s, and at a 10-12 percent rate each year after 2000, according to MacFarland.
"Though the recent count suggests that the wolf population has stabilized or showed a slight decline, science suggests that human-caused wolf mortalities must reach close to 30 percent before wolf populations are reduced," he said.
The count is conducted during a time of year when the wolf population is at its lowest point in the annual cycle. The population nearly doubles when pups are born, but mortalities of adults and young wolves bring those numbers down somewhat by the following winter, he said.
The DNR official said all of the known wolf deaths in 2012 fell within expected ranges. There were 117 from the legalized hunting and trapping, 76 from depredation control, 24 from vehicle collisions, 21 from illegal kills, and five from unknown causes.
The total known human-caused mortalities of wolves in 2012 amounted to 28 percent of the previous winter's count, but some level of undetected mortality likely occurred, MacFarland said.
The state's wolf management plan for 2012 included several objectives, the first of which was to ensure a sustainable wolf population.
The management of the Wisconsin wolf population was made possible by a federal decision recognizing that the burgeoning wolf population here and in Michigan and Minnesota no longer needed protections offered by the Endangered Species Act.
The Wisconsin wolf count was released just one week after the public learned of a draft rule within the U.S. Department of Interior that called for removal of endangered species protections for the gray wolf in all of the Lower 48 states.
In the draft rule - an indication of the agency's future policy on wolves - officials said that the 6,000 wolves now living in the Northern Rockies and the Great Lakes Region (including Wisconsin) are enough to prevent the species from going extinct.
According to the draft rule, published by the Associated Press, it's not necessary to have wolves in other places like the West Coast, New England and other Rocky Mountain areas in order to assure the survival of the species.
Not surprisingly, wildlife groups said the proposal would hurt the dramatic recovery of the species. Farm and ranchers' groups were supportive of the decision after dealing with widespread losses of livestock because of wolves.
The Wisconsin DNR's wolf management plan also called for measures to reduce the wolf population with the removal of problem wolves that killed livestock or pets and hunting dogs.
The plan called for "quickly and effectively addressing depredation problems" that landowners were having. Wildlife managers have said from the outset that problem wolves that attack and kill livestock do not make for good public relations for the species.
The hunting and trapping season was established to help wildlife managers reach established population goals.
"We were consciously taking a more conservative approach to (hunting and trapping) quotas the first season," said MacFarland. "Our aim was to have a safe, respectful, and legal hunting and trapping season that starts giving us strong data on which to base future management decisions. We achieved that."
The agency will continue to learn with each successive wolf hunting season, he added.
Wisconsin Farm Bureau is one group that has been interested in the wolf population issue because many of its members suffer the consequences of a growing number of wolves.
Wisconsin Farm Bureau's Director of Governmental Relations Karen Gefvert told Wisconsin State Farmer that the wolf count numbers are generally what Farm Bureau expected.
"The DNR had to proceed conservatively with its harvest quotas for the first year of a hunting season. There were unknowns as to how successful the hunt would be and how the population would be affected."
Gefvert noted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be overseeing DNR's management of the wolf population for the first five years following the removal of the gray wolf from endangered species protections.
"This ensures that wolf numbers stay within an acceptable range to ensure the long-term viability of the gray wolf population in Wisconsin. Now that we know how the wolf population is impacted by a hunting season, the DNR can re-evaluate hunting quotas to work toward the population goal as stated in the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan.
"This will help farmers in Wisconsin that have suffered losses to livestock," Gefvert added.
The Wolf Advisory Committee, a diverse group representing agency, non-agency, hunting and non-hunting interests, will meet May 23 to develop the 2013 wolf quota recommendations.
Department leadership will consider their recommendations before developing final recommendations for consideration by the Natural Resources Board at its June meeting.