Repopulation of wolves in Midwestern United States

The repopulation of wolves in Midwestern United States has occurred naturally as the gray wolf has expanded its territory after being nearly extirpated from the conterminous United States. The Midwestern states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are estimated to have 4,400 wolves. The western Great Lakes region they inhabit includes the forested areas of these states, along with the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Ontario. In 1978, wolves were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act as it was determined that they were in danger of going extinct and needed protection to aid their recovery. Management under the Act allowed the remaining wolves in Minnesota to flourish and repopulate northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Wolves were removed from federal protection in January 2021 with management authority remaining with state and tribal authorities. Management plans guide each state’s decisions about wolf regulations for hunting, trapping, and culling along with population monitoring, and livestock damage control.

Expansion under federal protection[edit]

Wild wolves became locally extinct from shooting, trapping and poisoning, with support from government bounty programs.[1] While wolves were considered extirpated in every other state except for Alaska, they survived in remote northeastern corner of Minnesota of sub-boreal forests and lakes.[2] Wolves in the United States were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1978 as they were in danger of going extinct and needed protection to aid their recovery.[3] Known as timber wolves, the few hundred animals in dozens of packs remaining in Minnesota and Ontario began to naturally disperse through their historic habitat in the western Great Lakes forests under the protected status.[4] Under protected status, wolves can only be killed when human life is at risk.[5] Wolves in Minnesota were soon listed as threatened. This allowed limited, targeted trapping of wolves by the U.S. Department of Agriculture near where pets and livestock have been killed. That program has killed about 200 wolves each year while the endangered listing in Wisconsin and Michigan did not allow lethal control.[2]

Wisconsin listed the gray wolf as a state endangered species in 1975 when it appeared that wolves, native to Wisconsin, were beginning to repopulate the state.[6] The state recovery plan, initiated in 1989, set a population of 80 for three consecutive years as the trigger to reclassify the wolf to threatened status. Having reached that goal in 1999 with a population of 197, the state adopted the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan for guidance towards eventual delisting.[7] In 2003, the status of wolves in Wisconsin moved down to threatened rather than endangered. The known population in 2004 was 335 which included 8 on Indian reservations.[8] The state plan was updated in 2007 when there were about 550 wolves in Wisconsin.[9] Michigan removed wolves from the state's list of threatened and endangered species in 2009 having reached the recovery goal of 200 for five consecutive years in 2004.[1] In 2012, FWS issued a rule that classified and delisted a sub-species called the Western Great Lakes wolves under the federal Endangered Species Act.[10] In response, Wisconsin enacted a law requiring a hunting season while the wolf population had reached 800. Minnesota and Wisconsin held wolf harvest seasons in 2012, 2013, and 2014.[11][12][13][14] Michigan had a legal wolf hunt in 2013 only.[1] Wolves were returned to the list of federally threatened species in December 2014 as a result of a court ruling that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not fully address the impact that the extraction would have on the remaining wolves in the country.[10]

Removal of federal endangered species status[edit]

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves’ endangered species status at the beginning of January 2021 when more than 6,000 wolves were living in nine states.[12][13] The delisting was challenged in federal court by wildlife advocates in response to aggressive hunting laws enacted in states like Montana and Idaho.[15][16] Officials in those states were responding to periodic attacks on livestock and perceived reduced numbers of elk and deer that many hunters blame on the wolves.[17] At the November 2021 hearing, a federal judge focused on a particular issue; Were wolves properly classified under the endangered act prior to losing their protected status last year?[18] The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is required to monitor for five years the population of any species it removes from the endangered species list. The post-delisting monitoring plan says wolves have to be doing well in Minnesota and Wisconsin for the species to continue to be delisted.[19]

After federal wolf protection ended, the states and tribes again became responsible to manage the animal and regulate hunting.[20][21] Wildlife management attempts to balance the needs of wildlife with the needs of people using the best available science.[22] Management plans can provide a framework to guide each state’s decisions about wolf regulations for hunting, trapping, and culling along with population monitoring, management, damage control, education, research and other issues.[2] Some state governments welcomed the delisting as they have long sought the ability to manage wolves including controlling their numbers through hunting and trapping.[15]

State and tribal management[edit]

Wolves have naturally migrated in the three state region. As of 2021, the estimated population is 4,400 in the three states.[23] Wolves may also disperse across the Great Plains into this region from the northern Rocky Mountain region which includes Wyoming with approximately 300 wolves and Colorado with a small population.[24][25] In Midwestern states without resident packs, state authorities may perform biological genetic testing to determine the origin of the wolf when coyote hunters or ranchers self-report suspected wolf killings. Since wolves were extirpated in Nebraska in the early 1900s, there has been three instance of confirmed wolf presence as of 2021. The first was in 2002 and all the dispersers have been from the Great Lakes region.[26] There are four known cases of wolves being shot by coyote hunters in Iowa since 2014. A few gray wolves have also been reported in South Dakota on both sides of the Missouri River.[24]

Minnesota has one of the densest wolf populations in the lower 47 states. By September 2018, the state had exceeded 2,000 wolves for at least 20 years when the midwinter survey put the population at 2,655 wolves with 465 packs.[12] Minnesota divided the state into two zones.[27] The northeast zone would have more protections for the wolves than the rest of the state which would have more flexibility to manage the population.[28] Minnesota is updating their wolf management plan with the last plan dating from 2001.[29] The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources decided there would be no hunting or trapping season in 2021 with the anticipation of completing their plan update by early 2022.[30]

In 2021, Michigan had an estimated 700 wolves spread among 143 packs, all in the Upper Peninsula. That figure had been holding steady for several years.[23] The wolves on Isle Royale, Michigan, in Lake Superior are considered separately and are not included in the count for the state.[1] The Michigan DNR Wolf Management Advisory Council began meeting in August 2021 and plans to provide input on a management plan in May 2022.[31] Native American tribes will also be consulted on wolf management.[32] The management plan was last updated in 2015 and a date for renewed hunting has not been set although the state legislature urged them to have one soon.[33][23]

Wisconsin counted over 1,000 wolves with 256 packs in 2020.[34] With the increasing population and improved understanding of population dynamics, an update to the Wisconsin wolf management plan process was initiated in 2021.[35] The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) is required by state law to set a wolf hunt season to be held between November and February if the animals are not listed as endangered (federal or state).[34] They set the initial hunt for November 2021 which would have allowed time to assess the wolf population, receive public input, consult with the Native American tribes and prepare a plan. Also pups born in the spring would have a chance to grow.[36] After an informational committee meeting on January 13, 2021, twelve elected officials sent a letter to the Natural Resources Board stating that the consensus was that wolves in Wisconsin need to be hunted now.[37] Legislators were concerned that they might be quickly put back on the federal endangered species list through a legal challenge.[38] A court ordered season did open at the end of February after the November date was challenged by an out-of-state hunter advocacy group. The hunt, hastily organized on two weeks’ notice, was based on the state law requiring a season when wolves were not listed.[39] Based on an estimated population of about 1,000 wolves, the department set the quota at 200 outside of reservation lands.[40] Of these, 119 wolves were allocated to the state and 81 were allocated to the Ojibwe tribes since treaty rights are taken into consideration within the Ceded Territory, essentially the northern one-third of Wisconsin.[41] The tribes consider the wolf culturally and spiritually important and place a high value on the ecological role of the species.[42] They choose to not issue licenses for their allotted quota.[43] The season ended prematurely after four days with hunters with state licenses killing 216 wolves.[44] As the quota was clearly being exceeded, the closure still had to wait for 24 hours after the notice before closing a wolf hunting zone.[43] Dogs were used in 86% of the wolves kills under conditions the WDNR described as ideal for tracking as wolf packs were breeding and leaving scent and tracks as they patrolled their territories.[45] The law’s 24-hour notice requirement prior to closing the season, the high number of licenses sold and the use of hunting hounds made it difficult to properly manage the hunt according to the WDNR.[46] Researchers estimate that nearly one third of the state’s total wolf population was reduced.[47][48] They included estimated natural deaths and unreported kills such as poaching which they think increased after wolves were delisted. A WDNR official noted that the one third estimate did not account for any births that followed the spring hunt.[49] The WDNR considered the 200 a conservative number in keeping with their intent to keep the population level stable.[45] Wolves reproduce only once a year, usually between January and March. Scientists say that the 38 breeding-age females killed likely included those that were pregnant or nursing.[49]

In response to the February hunt in Wisconsin, the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, a treaty rights group representing 11 Ojibwe tribes in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, sent a letter requesting that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reconsider the decision to delist wolves.[19] They also opposed the second 2021 Wisconsin hunt that was scheduled for November 6.[43] They thought the "modest population" should be given time to recover from the "brutal hunt in February during the wolves' breeding season".[42] The WDNR scientists proposed a 130-wolf limit for the fall season.[50] The National Resources Board (NRB), which is the policy-setting board for the WDNR, approved a quota of up to 300 wolves.[49] Scientists recommended a lower number as the swift removal of wolves from the state twice in one year would likely harm their natural reproduction process.[47][48] The Ojibwe tribes seek to protect the wolves and contend that the NRB has willfully acted to nullify the Ojibwe Tribes’ share by approving the higher quota.[51] Six Ojibwe tribes filed a lawsuit in federal court in September saying that in setting the quota the NRB purposefully and knowingly discriminated against the Ojibwe Tribes by acting to nullify their share and that the board failed to use sound biological principles in establishing the quota.[52] The WDNR went with their original 130-wolf limit determination.[53] Ojibwe tribes claimed 56 of the quota in the Ceded Territory for the fall 2021 season.[54] Non-tribal hunters were allocated 74 wolves total amongst the six zones within the state.[55] A temporary injunction, issued on October 22 in a legal challenge brought by coalition of wildlife advocacy groups, halted the season two weeks before it was set to begin. The Dane County Circuit Court judge stated that the WDNR had failed to create permanent regulations enacting the law which created the hunting season. While the law is constitutional on its face, the department must follow the regulatory process. The WDNR must implement updated regulations on determining quotas and the number of licenses it issues and complete the ongoing update to the wolf management plan with new wolf population goals in order for the injunction to be lifted.[56] The six Ojibwe tribes, that had filed a lawsuit in September, requested and failed to get the federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from holding a hunt in the event the temporary injunction is overturned on appeal.[57]


The presence of wolves was found to reduce deer-vehicle collisions in a study published in 2021.[58] The two factors were the thinning of the deer population by wolves and behavior changes in fearful deer who avoided roads that wolves may be using.[59]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d Flesher, John (July 27, 2020). "Michigan wolf population at nearly 700 but leveling off". AP News. Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  2. ^ a b c Myers, John (October 28, 2020). "Feds to announce wolf delisting Thursday in Minnesota". Duluth News Tribune. Retrieved April 23, 2021.
  3. ^ Rott, Nathan (October 29, 2020). "Gray Wolves To Be Removed From Endangered Species List". Milwaukee: WUWM. Retrieved April 21, 2021.
  4. ^ Kraker, Dan (October 30, 2020). "Gray wolves lose federal protection; state will manage instead". MPR News. Minnesota Public Radio. Retrieved April 23, 2021.
  5. ^ Flesher, John (August 2, 2017). "Court keeps Great Lakes wolves on endangered species list". Chicago Tribune. Associated Press. Retrieved May 3, 2021.
  6. ^ U.S. Department of Agriculture (2006), p. 10
  7. ^ Wisconsin DNR (1999), p. 3
  8. ^ Gorman, James (March 16, 2004). "Wolves Come Back (On Their Terms)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 7, 2021.
  9. ^ "Wolf Management Plan". Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved April 20, 2021.
  10. ^ a b Ostrowski, Carter (January 22, 2021). "Are Gray Wolves Ready to be Delisted as an Endangered Species?". University of Cincinnati Law Review. Retrieved June 21, 2021.
  11. ^ Myers, John (December 19, 2014). "Court order puts Great Lakes wolves back on endangered species list". Duluth News Tribune. Retrieved April 28, 2021.
  12. ^ a b c Kraker, Dan (March 15, 2019). "What gray wolves' endangered status means for Minnesota". MPR News. Minnesota Public Radio. Retrieved April 23, 2021.
  13. ^ a b Bekiempis, Victoria (March 3, 2021). "Wisconsin hunters kill 216 wolves in less than 60 hours, sparking uproar". The Guardian. Retrieved April 21, 2021.
  14. ^ Bence, Susan (November 20, 2018). "Wisconsin Gray Wolf Debate Fires Up Again". Milwaukee: WUWM. Retrieved April 21, 2021.
  15. ^ a b D’Angelo, Chris; Planas, Roque (September 21, 2021). "Wolf-killing campaigns in Idaho and Montana may have just backfired". Mother Jones. Retrieved September 22, 2021.
  16. ^ Kaeding, Danielle (December 2, 2021). "Wisconsin's fall wolf hunt is on hold. Several lawsuits could affect whether it moves forward". Wisconsin Public Radio. Retrieved December 7, 2021.
  17. ^ Brown, Matthew (September 15, 2021). "US: Wolves may need protections after states expand hunting". AP News. Retrieved December 8, 2021.
  18. ^ "Fight over U.S. wolf protections heads to federal courtroom". MPR News. Associated Press. November 12, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  19. ^ a b Cushman, Will (August 30, 2021). "How Wisconsin's Wolf Hunt Quotas May Prompt Federal Review". PBS Wisconsin. Retrieved September 2, 2021.
  20. ^ "Removing the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) From the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife". U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. November 3, 2020. 85 FR 69778.
  21. ^ "Groups fight to keep gray wolf protections for most of US". Associated Press. November 9, 2020. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
  22. ^ Fishman, Elly (November 18, 2021). "Inside the Bitter Debate Over How to Manage Wolves in Wisconsin". Milwaukee Magazine. Retrieved December 8, 2021.
  23. ^ a b c Ellison, Garret (February 24, 2021). "Michigan wolves require population control, hunt supporters argue". MLive. Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  24. ^ a b Mcnally, Bob (April 15, 2021). "Gray Wolves in Nebraska? A Genetic Test Reveals One Was Taken By a Coyote Hunter". Outdoor Life. Retrieved April 16, 2021.
  25. ^ McKee, Spencer (June 23, 2020). "The Modern History of the Wolf in Colorado". OutThere Colorado. Retrieved April 17, 2021.
  26. ^ Spilinek, Collin (April 14, 2021). "Nebraska's third gray wolf sighting in 20 years confirmed near Uehling". Fremont Tribune. Retrieved May 6, 2021.
  27. ^ Myers, John (January 5, 2021). "Old Minnesota wolf rules on livestock, pet attacks back in effect". Twin Cities Pioneer Press. Forum News. Retrieved April 23, 2021.
  28. ^ "MN DNR outlines wolf plan as endangered species status expires". WDIO-TV. January 4, 2021. Retrieved April 23, 2021.
  29. ^ Myers, John (November 28, 2019). "Minnesota updating wolf management plan". Duluth News Tribune. Retrieved April 28, 2021.
  30. ^ Myers, John (July 7, 2021). "DNR: No Minnesota wolf hunt this year". Duluth News Tribune. Retrieved July 8, 2021.
  31. ^ Friend, Nick (August 4, 2021). "DNR hears debate on a potential wolf hunt". WLUC. Retrieved August 5, 2021.
  32. ^ Llanes, Caroline (February 20, 2021). "Senate proposes resolution to start wolf hunts in 2021". Michigan Radio. Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  33. ^ "Michigan Senate urges new wolf hunt for 2021". Upper Michigans Source. Negaunee, Michigan: WLUC-TV. March 10, 2021. Retrieved March 11, 2021.
  34. ^ a b "Wisconsin says wolf season will be held next November". WDIO-TV. Associated Press. December 4, 2020. Retrieved April 23, 2021.
  35. ^ Bence, Susan (December 1, 2020). "Conservation Group Urges Wisconsin To Develop A Sustainable Wolf Management Plan". Milwaukee: WUWM. Retrieved April 20, 2021.
  36. ^ Keer, Tom (March 1, 2021). "'Should We Have Closed the Season Sooner? Yes.' Wisconsin DNR Faces Backlash After Wolf Hunting Season Ends in an Uproar". Field & Stream. Retrieved March 23, 2021.
  37. ^ The Masked Biologist (January 25, 2021). "When is Wisconsin's Wolf Hunt?". WXPR. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  38. ^ "Republicans demand DNR resume wolf hunt immediately". AP News. January 19, 2021. Retrieved September 10, 2021.
  39. ^ Machemer, Theresa (March 2, 2021). "Hunters Killed 82% More Wolves Than Quota Allowed in Wisconsin". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved March 23, 2021.
  40. ^ "Chippewa tribes blast Wisconsin wolf hunt, say it was about killing". MPR News. Minnesota Public Radio. The Associated Press. March 22, 2021. Retrieved April 21, 2021.
  41. ^ Holmes, Isiah (February 23, 2021). "Wisconsin wolf hunt called "unenforceable"". Wisconsin Examiner. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  42. ^ a b Asmelash, Leah (October 5, 2021). "Wisconsin's wolf hunt quota is lowered following months of conflict". CNN. Retrieved October 6, 2021.
  43. ^ a b c Richmond, Todd (August 12, 2021). "What's Ahead for the Wisconsin Wolf Hunt". US. News and World Report. The Associated Press.
  44. ^ Stanley, Greg (February 25, 2021). "As Minnesota considers wolf hunt, Wisconsin hunters blow past quotas". Star Tribune. Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  45. ^ a b Hubbuch, Chris (February 26, 2021). "Wolf kill total continues to rise well over quota in Wisconsin's first hunt after federal protections". Retrieved October 6, 2021.
  46. ^ Kaeding, Danielle (October 22, 2021). "Dane County judge temporarily bars Wisconsin's wolf hunt, orders DNR to set quota of zero wolves". Wisconsin Public Radio. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  47. ^ a b Treves, Adrian; Santiago-Ávila, Francisco J.; Putrevu, Karann (July 5, 2021). "Quantifying the effects of delisting wolves after the first state began lethal management". PeerJ. 9: e11666. doi:10.7717/peerj.11666. ISSN 2167-8359. PMC 8265384. PMID 34268009.
  48. ^ a b Cosier, Susan (August 12, 2021). "Scientists urged Wisconsin to limit its wolf kill. It didn't go well". Science. Retrieved September 12, 2021.
  49. ^ a b c Joosse, Tess (September 7, 2021). "Wolf Populations Drop as More States Allow Hunting". Scientific American. Retrieved September 10, 2021.
  50. ^ Roy, Adam (September 9, 2021). "Wisconsin Officials Want to Double Their Wolf Hunt. Conservationists Are Suing to Shut it Down". Backpacker. Retrieved September 11, 2021.
  51. ^ Smith, Paul A. (October 1, 2021). "A hearing is set for the Ojibwe tribes' wolf hunting case as they also seek an injunction to stop the DNR from issuing licenses". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved October 2, 2021.
  52. ^ Kaeding, Danielle (October 29, 2021). "Wisconsin tribes seek federal injunction to block fall wolf hunt even as recent order bars a season". Wisconsin Public Radio. Retrieved October 30, 2021.
  53. ^ "Wolf hunting and trapping". Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved October 5, 2021.
  54. ^ Smith, Paul A. (September 18, 2021). "Ojibwe tribes have claimed 50% of wolf quota and are pushing for a reduction in the overall number". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved September 19, 2021.
  55. ^ Poltrock, Heather (October 4, 2021). "DNR sets wolf hunt quota at 130; non-tribal hunters to be allotted 74 wolves". WEAU. Retrieved October 5, 2021.
  56. ^ Richmond, Todd (October 22, 2021). "Judge issues injunction blocking Wisconsin fall wolf hunt". AP News. Retrieved October 23, 2021.
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  58. ^ Larson, Christina (May 24, 2021). "Wolves scare deer and reduce auto collisions 24%, study says". AP News. Retrieved May 25, 2021.
  59. ^ Raynor, Jennifer L.; Grainger, Corbett A.; Parker, Dominic P. (June 1, 2021). "Wolves make roadways safer, generating large economic returns to predator conservation". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 118 (22): e2023251118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2023251118. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 8179214. PMID 34031245. S2CID 235199640.


Further reading[edit]

  • Wydeven, Adrian P.; Deelen, Timothy R.; van Heske, Edward J. (2009). Recovery of Gray Wolves in the Great Lakes Region of the United States: An Endangered Species Success Story. Springer. ISBN 978-0-387-85951-4. OCLC 308158198.
  • Thiel, Richard P. (1993). The Timber Wolf in Wisconsin: The Death and Life of a Majestic Predator. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-13944-5.

External links[edit]