MADISON, Wisconsin — Wisconsin's first wolf hunt didn't make much of a dent in the overall population, according to estimates state wildlife officials released Monday.
The Department of Natural Resources' late-winter count shows the state's wolf population may have slightly declined but remains relatively stable. The numbers could lead to higher kill limits this year as debate stretches on over whether wolves should be hunted at all.
"The management objectives remain to put downward pressure on the population," DNR carnivore specialist David MacFarland said. "The mortality levels experienced in 2012 didn't achieve that objective or only made slight progress toward the goal."
The DNR's current wolf management plan calls for an off-reservation population of 350. The agency's count found as many as 834 animals roamed the state as of March. That compares with as many as 880 wolves around the same time last year. The 2013 count marked only the fourth time since 1985 the DNR hasn't detected an increase in the wolf population.
According to the DNR's figures, hunters killed 117 wolves during the state's inaugural season, which ran from October to December. Another 126 wolves died during 2012 through depredation control, car collisions, illegal kills and unknown causes.
The population count was conducted between January and March through a mix of radio telemetry, pilot observations and winter track counts, according to a DNR statement. The wolf population at that time of year is at its lowest point ahead of spring pup births, which can cause the population to double, MacFarland said.
The wolf hunt has been a flashpoint of contention since Republican lawmakers authorized it last year. Supporters say the state's wolf population is exploding and devastating livestock. Animal rights advocates have countered the wolf population is still too fragile to support a hunt and people should leave what they consider a majestic animal alone. The state's Chippewa tribes also are vehemently opposed to the hunt; they consider the wolf a spiritual brother.
The DNR's board set the first hunt's kill limit at 116 wolves after agency officials said they wanted to move cautiously the first time out. The hunt originally was supposed to run from October to the last day in February, but the DNR shut it down in December after hunters had killed 117 animals.
The agency has formed an advisory committee to develop a 2013 kill limit recommendation. The committee plans to meet on May 23 in Wausau to work on the quota. DNR leaders will consider the committee's recommendation as it finalizes a quota. The Natural Resources Board likely will vote on the number in June or July.
DNR Wildlife Ecology Section Chief Bill Vander Zouwen chairs the committee. He said it's difficult to say what the panel might do, especially since the DNR plans to review its wolf management plan this year and could adjust the 350-wolf goal.
"It really depends on what our objective is," Vander Zouwen said. "I'm sure some (committee members) will want to be very conservative. It's a fairly new hunt. Some are probably a little more protective than others. (They) will say we've been very patient and it's time to move the population closer to goal. Lot of tough questions."