For a lot of folks on both sides of the wolf debate, it's something they deal with from a safe distance. But for hunters like Ron Hill, it's a war being waged in his own backyard.
On October 6, Hill and his hunting group were tracking a bear in Wisconsin — in an area familiar to them — with the use of their hound dogs, when one of the dogs got separated from the group and was brutally killed by a pack of wolves. The dog was a 1 1/2 year old female Treeing Walker and was killed in Douglas County.
According to Hill, after treeing a bear he realized that one of the dogs was missing. He and his group heard wolves howling, and at that point began tracking the dog by its electronic collar. As they followed the signals from the collar and drew near to the dog, the wolf pack kept pushing it away from them. Part of their tactic, Hill said, is to wait until the dog is worn out and then isolate it, preying on the weak.
After nearly three hours of trying to get to the dog, Hill said they began seeing serious amounts of blood splatter, all about 20 yards apart. As he approached, he realized that the dog had been torn to pieces by the wolves. The dog put up a fight over a 60 yard length, but was ultimately no match for the pack of skilled predators. Hill contacted state officials, who keep records of wolf depredation and assess the financial damages incurred by owners.
"I understand some people's sentimental notion about wolves, but a lot of that is misconception," Hill said. "Over the years I've spoken to many people about wolves, and most of them who oppose wolf hunting live in cities where they don't see the real damage that the wolves are capable of doing. They don't understand that as a farmer or landowner, they're destroying your livelihood and income."
The hound dog, valued at $3,000, was the third killed in the same area in 2012, which means that particular area is now listed on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website as one hunters should avoid. Despite the DNR payout, Hill said they'll probably be lucky to recover half of the dog's value.
Depredation on the Rise
The attack also illustrates an overall rise in the number of wolf attacks since 1999, when the state DNR reclassified the wolf as "threatened" and initiated a new program to protect the species. Since that time the wolf population has grown from 250 to 800 statewide, and with that increase has come the decline of whitetail populations and a steady climb in wolf-inflicted damages.
In 2000, the first year of the wolf protection program, there was one hunting dog killed by wolves. Since that time, there have been 166 hound dogs killed, with an average of about 15 a year. There have also been 31 non-hunting dogs killed in that time, not to mention livestock deaths — all of which the DNR tracks and pays for.
From 1985 to 1998, the DNR spent roughly $40,000 on wolf depredation. From 1999 to present, they've shelled out about $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars for wolf-related damages. The irony in all of this? The state and federal government shell out taxpayer dollars to protect the wolves, then turn around and pay for damages because those same wolves are overpopulated and destructive. This is the first year Wisconsin will host a controversial wolf hunt, which Hill says he's ready for.
"I think wolves, as well as other animals, need to be kept in check to maintain a healthy ecosystem. The wolves have been protected for so many years that the population has become a nuisance. They are killing livestock, pets and killing off game animals such as deer and elk," Hill said. "I'm glad that the state has given hunters the opportunity to help control the wolf population."
Hill and his hunting group say they're prepared for the 2012 wolf season, which they drew eight tags for.
"Normally I'd be scouting out some good deer hunting, but this year's different. We're gonna go out and see what we can't do to fix some of the wolf situation. We're ready for it."
From the Landowners
Kevin Hogie, the landowner on whose property the dog was killed, said he's been meeting with 40 or so other landowners, as well as officials with the DNR, to help address the problem. After purchasing his land years ago for whitetail hunting, Hogie said deer populations don't leave much to be optimistic about.
"We've seen, and state studies have clearly shown, that there is a dramatic decrease in deer populations in the last ten years. We've decided as landowners that we have to get together and voice our concerns, and we've had some heated meetings with the DNR as a result, even talking with their biologist about this," Hogie said.
With a dozen trail cameras set up on his property, Hogie said there's an obvious and worrisome trend — most of the pictures are of wolves, not deer.
"I think the photos kind of say it all. You see photos with deer limbs being hauled around, we've seen carcasses all over the property, and just picture after picture has got a wolf in it," Hogie said.
Hogie said he's talked with the DNR this past week to discuss the latest kill and to apply for a landowner permit to hunt wolves on his property, but that request was denied. According to DNR biologist Greg Kessler, because the dog wasn't near his owner at the time, that makes Hogie ineligible for such a permit.
Kessler also said the DNR continues to monitor the wolf situation, as they have for decades now, and are keeping a very close eye on deer populations. He pointed out that while deer populations have declined, a lot of that was by design — six years ago record numbers of deer were deemed unsustainable, so the state acted by allowing more hunting opportunities at a lower cost to residents.
"We continue to monitor the situation actively and conservatively, though I know some hunters aren't satisfied with that. It's a biological and social issue," Kessler said. "They certainly have real concerns and we're trying to address those specific areas like Kevin's in the best way possible."
Ron Hill found the 1 1/2 year old Walker Treeing hound after a brutal attack by wolves.
Walker Treeing Hound
Ron Hill took pictures of the 1 1/2 year old Walker Treeing hound that wolves killed October 6 while on a bear hunt. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources requires proof that your animal was attacked by wolves; these pictures leave no doubt.
Ready to Hunt
At any given time Ron Hill and his hunting group will run about 10 or so dogs, which are tracked by GPS or electronic collars.
Ron Hill's hunting group, after a successful bear kill.
Up a Tree
Ron Hill's hounds specialize in tracking and treeing bears, which is a useful way to manage growing populations.
Kevin Hogie's Trail Cameras
Landowner Kevin Hogie said he usually sees more wolves than deer. As wolf populations have had a resurgence, whitetail herds continue to drop.
Wolf and Pup
A female wolf appears to be carrying a young pup, as wolves near Kevin Hogie's property continue to multiply.
Thick as Wolves
Kevin Hogie said it's not uncommon to find deer carcasses on his property. The land near his property is the highest density population of wolves in the state.
Since the state of Wisconsin introduced a wolf protection program in 1999, the state has spent roughly [imo-slideshow gallery=96].4 million paying animal owners for wolf attacks.
The Moosehead Pack
This map shows the pack of wolves that lives near Kevin Hogie's property, generally the same area where Ron Hill conducts bear hunts with his hunting dogs.