Skip to main content

Wisconsin Tribes Struggle to Save Their Brothers the Wolves From Sanctioned Hunt

Ojibwe Tribes in Wisconsin are grappling with the implications of an upcoming wolf-hunting season.

“Is nothing sacred anymore?” asked Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe in Wisconsin, in reaction to the proposed wolf hunt in the state. His question was somewhat rhetorical because he already knew the answer. Wisconsin's state legislature passed a law in April allowing for the hunting and trapping of wolves.

Since the opening of the permit application process, which runs from August 1–31, more than 3,000 people have applied. The season is scheduled to begin October 15 and run through February 2013. The wolf, Ma’iingan, is considered sacred by the Ojibwe and figures highly in their creation stories. Tribal member Essie Leoso noted that according to tradition, Ma’iingan walked with first man. “Killing a wolf is like killing a brother,” she said.

The wolf hunting application fee is $10. Permits will be given to hunters by the Department of Natural Resources through a lottery-style drawing and will be awarded at a cost of $100 per permit to 2,010 hunters, according to a recent Associated Press report from Madison. Each permit-carrying hunter will be allowed to take one wolf until the state limit of 201 wolves is reached. Since the grey wolf or timber wolf was removed from the list of endangered animals last December, Wisconsin passed Act 169 allowing for the hunting and trapping of the animals.

Minnesota has enacted a similar law and will hold its inaugural wolf-hunting season during approximately the same time period. The decision by the state to allow wolf hunting does not sit well with the tribes in Wisconsin, who were not consulted regarding the rules and limitations of the law before it was enacted. The law allows hunters to shoot or trap wolves during the day or night, and allows the use of bait to attract the animals as well as the use of dogs. According to a recent story in the Wisconsin State Journal, Wisconsin will be the only state that allows the use of dogs in the hunting of wolves.

A coalition of groups opposing the hunt is suing the DNR, according to an August 8 story in the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel. Plaintiffs include the Wisconsin Federated Humane Societies, Dane County Humane Society, Wisconsin Humane Society, Fox Valley Humane Association, Northland Alliance, National Wolfwatcher Coalition as well as individual citizens. The lawsuit claims that the hunt will violate the state’s animal cruelty act, citing the proposed use of dogs in hunting wolves. There is considerable disagreement regarding the number of wolves living in Wisconsin as well as the capacity of the land to support the population. Kurt Thiede, Land Administrator for the DNR, told The DePaulia of DePaul University that the state’s wolf population count was 850 in spring 2012 and that the maximum capacity for Wisconsin land to support is 500 wolves.

Organizations such as the Timber Wolf Alliance argue that the land’s carrying capacity is around 800. The Timber Alliance is an organization founded to promote the recovery of the wolf population. Via radio telemetry, the Bad River Ojibwe Natural Resources Department estimates that there are between 14–18 wolves on the 125,000 plus–acre reservation, according to Wiggins.

“I have never seen a wolf in the woods in all my years hunting,” he noted in a recent interview. While driving the back roads of the reservation, he has seen wolves only twice. If the wolf population were as high as the DNR estimates, Wiggins observed, there would be no need for the Department’s extensive efforts to manage the burgeoning deer population in the state. The growing interest in hunting wolves is largely driven by Hollywood style hype, Wiggins feels. “Films like The Grey are all about fear mongering and depicting wolves as human predators. The facts, however, don’t support this view,” Wiggins said.

He said that despite the presence of wolves in the woods, he and his fellow Ojibwe hunters are still able to fill their freezers with venison. “The presence of wolves in the woods is sacred and tangible. They are a gift,” he said. “From an ecological management perspective, they have a place, and they’re not doing any harm.” The push to hunt the wolf is largely driven by trophy-hungry sportsmen, according to Wiggins.

“There is no subsistence factor in wolf hunting,” he said. “The political realm is driving this harvest.”

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association and other such groups played a lead role in drafting the legislation permitting the hunt, according to a story in the Milwaukee Journal. The six Wisconsin Ojibwe tribes appear to be united in their decision not to hunt wolves. This decision, however, begs an important question. According to treaties signed in 1837 and 1842, Wisconsin’s six Ojibwe tribes ceded land to the government that covers roughly the northern third of the state.

In the Voight Decision of 1983, the federal government affirmed the Ojibwe tribes off-reservation fishing and hunting rights on ceded land, permitting them to harvest half of available resources. Therefore, the tribes are entitled to 50 percent of the DNR’s wolf hunt limit of 201 for the season. Will the wolves need to be harvested, i.e. killed, in order to meet the requirements of the Voight Decision?

Tribes are concerned that their decision not to harvest wolves may lead the DNR to simply increase the number available to citizens at large. Authorities from each of the tribes as well as representatives from the Great Lakes Intertribal Fish and Wildlife Commission are currently in negotiation with the DNR about the details of the hunt. Asked if the DNR is likely to recognize tribes’ choice not to kill their quota of wolves as still meeting the agreements of the Voight Decision, Jason Stark, Policy Analyst with GLIFWC responded, “We’ll see.”

The court has never ruled on whether their hunting entitlement allows them to hunt the wolves or requires them to, according to Stark.

“The tribes’ position is that our share is our share, and we have the right to keep animals within our ecosystem,” Stark said. The state’s position is that the tribes have a right to harvest. “The state has won the right to management of resources. The tribes, however, see the state as co-managers,” Stark observed.

Ultimately the state has to be sure that any system put forth does not “detriment” the tribe.

“This is their responsibility as primary manager,” Stark said. The DNR is in a difficult position, according to Stark, noting that the department has been directed by the court to carry out the wolf hunting law. “They don’t have a lot of wiggle room,” he said. “Our conversations with the DNR are going okay. Hopefully we can figure out what is best. Fortunately we still have some time until the hunt begins.”

The Bad River tribal council is unified in opposition to a wolf hunt, said Wiggins and tribal vice chairman Peter Lemieux. The tribe is asking the DNR to create a six-mile buffer zone around the reservation. According to Wiggins, the tribe’s Natural Resources Department has determined that the four wolf packs currently living on the reservation sometimes make excursions beyond reservation boundaries. Since wolves are social animals, the killing of an alpha male or female would lessen the chances of survival for the entire pack, according to Wiggins. In describing their inextricable relationship with the wolf, Ojibwe often speak of their creation story, which says that whatever happens to one will happen to the other. The future of Wisconsin wolves is uncertain.

Tribes have until the end of August to declare a wolf quota to the DNR and perhaps create a new, broader definition of the term “harvest.” “At this point, at least I know for sure that our packs will have a bit of sanctuary here on our reservation,” Wiggins said.