As Wisconsin’s second wolf season got underway October 15, we heard claims that the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was ignoring science and risking a destabilized wolf population by setting a 251-wolf kill quota for the 2013 hunting and trapping season.

And those who attended The Wildlife Society’s annual national conference in Milwaukee on October 7-8 heard University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Adrian Treves claim wolf poaching is rising. During the conference, Treves also said the Wisconsin DNR’s 2013 wolf quota is “not sustainable nor responsible.”

Such claims pack punch because we like to think university researchers are detached, objective folks who disdain emotion, shun advocacy, and avoid predictions they can’t support with data.

In other words, we expect learned professors to stay above the frays of us caterwauling commoners. But maybe that’s asking too much of mere mortals who deal with wolves. Until the early 1990s, for example, Wisconsin DNR researchers named each wolf wearing a radio-transmitting collar. Instead of scientific IDs like “XT1F34” or “DNR9999,” we had Candys, Randys, and Mandys roaming the Northwoods. The agency pros stopped the practice after realizing it hurt their scientific credibility.

To be fair, naming wolves isn’t unique to the Wisconsin DNR. For example, researchers studying the famous wolves of Isle Royale in Lake Superior named wolves they radio-collared, too. Meanwhile, when fitting Isle Royale’s moose with radio-collars, they weren’t so sentimental. They stuck with standard scientific IDs.

Professor Treves has been especially vocal in opposing Wisconsin’s wolf hunt the past two years. When testifying in July 2012 to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board, Treves warned that the 2012 quota of 116 wolves risked an “unsustainable harvest.” He also said: “Wisconsin is likely to equal or exceed the (quota) and drive our wolf population below 350 the first year (2012).”

Treves’ prediction that hunters and trappers would exceed the quota in 2012 was correct, technically. Instead of killing 116, they killed 117 before the DNR closed the season. Even so, this year’s census found the 2012 hunt had virtually no impact on Wisconsin’s estimated 810-wolf population.

Granted, Wisconsin’s 251-wolf quota for 2013 cannot be sustained indefinitely, but the WDNR never said it was an annual harvest goal. The kill-quota will vary annually as agency biologists assess the wolf population and adjust accordingly. To suggest otherwise is misleading.

Even so, Treves is making similar dire predictions about this year’s quota. He told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in mid-October: “It could drive the wolf population back to threatened status and close the hunting season after just a couple of years.”

The DNR, meanwhile, predicts this year’s quota will cause a net reduction of 13 percent, which would leave roughly 700 wolves next year.

We should also note that Wisconsin’s 350-wolf population goal isn’t the historical relic some imply. The DNR’s Wolf Science Advisory Committee affirmed it in 2007 after reviewing the agency’s 1999 wolf management plan. The 2006-07 DNR wolf committee was staffed by credentialed experts from the state agency and the University of Wisconsin. Further, wolf numbers were estimated at 560 in 2007, or about 150 fewer than current estimates.

Treves has also been a frequent critic of wolf hunting methods allowed during Wisconsin’s wolf season. In his 2012 testimony to the DNR Board, he said: “There is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support the safety or efficacy of hunting wolves with hounds […] [nor is there] scientific evidence to support the safety or efficacy of hunting wolves with bait.”

Both statements are true, but we can’t expect peer-reviewed scientific studies when regulated wolf hunts didn’t exist until 2009 in the United States, and only Wisconsin offers hunting with trailing hounds. Further, if peer-reviewed research of wolf-baiting and wolf-hounding is a worthy goal, how can we get any scientific data if we don’t offer any opportunities to test the effectiveness of different hunting methods?

Treves’ claim about a recent rise in wolf poaching is also puzzling. DNR records show the agency investigated 1,007 dead wolves from 1979 through 2012, and declared 205 (20 percent) to be illegal kills. But from 2003 through 2012 the illegal kill rate was 19 percent, and after hitting a 10-year high of 30 percent in 2011 it fell to 17 percent in 2012—the hunt’s first year.

In fact, a DNR survey of 2012’s wolf hunters found most of them demonstrated respect toward wolves. When asked if they shot at the first wolf that presented an opportunity, 66.5 percent said no. Their number-one reason? They were waiting for a better shot.

Further, of those who killed a wolf, 60 percent took its hide to a taxidermist for mounting, and 33 percent tanned and kept it. Why would so many wolf hunters pass up iffy shots, and 93 percent preserve their kill for display, if they hate the sight of wolves?

Granted, Wisconsin is only one year into state-regulated wolf hunts, so it’s too soon to draw lasting judgments. But isn’t that the point? We should be studying these hunts to learn more about wolves, wolf management, and those who hunt or trap them.

Perhaps everyone involved should quit accusing others of ignoring science and research unless they’re practicing both themselves.

Image by Patrick Durkin

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5 thoughts on “Wolves Cause Some Scientists to Lose Objectivity

  1. It took 150 years to get rid of them, now we are going bring them all back? Helllooo?? I’m for some wolves, but when there are no deer and moose numbers dropping all over up northern areas, lets keep their numbers down.

  2. I always get a good laugh out of
    reading articles on moose population declines. They usually go on and
    on about climate change, too many ticks, brain parasites, etc., but when you
    actually dig into the mortality numbers from the Minnesota DNR it turns out half of the
    adult moose and 2/3 of the calves that died were killed by wolves. They
    also count any moose that dies within two weeks of being collared as being a
    death related to capture, regardless of what actually killed it, so the numbers
    killed by wolves are most likely higher than they report.

  3. Dire warnings are the natural tactic of the left. The problem is that some of the dire warnings are not scientifically accurate and are based purely on ideology. Has Professor Treves joined this parade?

    Jonathan Schell is a perfect example of the mind-set of
    certain environmentalists and warm and fuzzy liberals. The imagined crises seem
    to be more important than the truth or any facts associated with a set of
    circumstances. In an article in Discover Magazine in 1987, he is quoted as
    making the following statement:

    “We need to act on theory alone,
    which is to say on prediction alone. It follows that the reputation of
    scientific prediction needs to be enhanced. But that can happen, paradoxically,
    only if scientists disavow the certainty and precision that they normally
    insist on. Above all we need to learn to act decisively to forestall predicted
    perils, even while knowing that they may never materialize. We must take
    action, in a manner of speaking, to preserve our ignorance.”

    Dr. Stephen
    Schneider gives us another example of the dishonesty sometimes associated with
    environmentalists posing as unbiased scientists. The following statement has
    been attributed to him:

    “To capture the public imagination,
    we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and
    make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide what
    the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” (Interview for
    “Discover” magazine, Oct 1989)

    As you can see we definitely have a growing credibility
    problem within some portions of the scientific community. If I saw any article
    published by either of these two “scientists” it would end up in the trash.

    1. The problem is that some of the dire warnings are not scientifically accurate and are based purely on ideology.

      Actually NONE of their dire warnings are scientifically accurate and ALL are based purely on ideology.

  4. This is an article about scientific objectivity, and the comments inevitably descend into “screw science, let’s kill all wolves”, so I thought I’d offer my views from the “other side”, i.e. the evil leftist conspiracy known as environmental science:

    I totally agree with the second-to-last sentence. Proper research takes hunting data into account. But as for the last one (conclusion): however un-objective some researchers may be (and you’re right to point it out), the typical attitude you get from hunting lobbyists is the inevitable “I don’t care about research, wolves are the source of all evil, shoot them all”. So I’m afraid science still wins for at least constantly trying to stay objective under scrutiny, even if certain individuals fail that goal. A lot of overprotective wolf attitudes are obviously wrong (for starters, wolves in North America aren’t “threatened” in any useful sense of the word), but the idea that they are the only force driving game to extinction and that there is a conspiracy to cover it up is ridiculous.

    Also: Naming tracked animals is done not so much out of sentiment but
    for easier memorization. It’s hard to insert “XT1F34” into conversation,
    so even when using official IDs you can expect the researchers to come
    up with nicknames. Sorry.

    Just felt like venting. That being said, I like this website because it’s fairly objective. We’re both interested in what the facts are, right?

    (BTW, I didn’t know I was a part of “the left” and using our “natural dire tactics” (reggiec’s comment). Cool.

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