Slaughtering wolves in Wisconsin just for the thrill of the kill

The hunt was cut short on Wednesday after 182 wolves were wiped out. What was the point?

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Shortly after the Trump administration removed gray wolves from the federal endangered species list, 2,380 Wisconsin hunters were allowed to buy licenses to kill 119 wolves over seven days.

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In Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery,” the villagers of a small town randomly choose one of their own to stone to death for no ostensible purpose other than the cathartic thrill of the kill.

A similarly macabre lottery recently was conducted by our neighbors in Wisconsin. Following the Trump administration’s controversial removal of the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list, just days before Donald Trump left office, 2,380 Wisconsin hunters chosen by lottery from 27,151 applicants “won” the privilege of buying licenses to kill 119 wolves over a seven-day period.

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But the hunt was cut short this week, on Wednesday, when the quota was exceeded and 182 wolves wiped out in just three days. This was likely because the wolves were more vulnerable due to heavy snow cover, said George Meyer of the Wilderness Wildlife Federation.

Why did more than 27,000 people pay for a chance to shoot a gray wolf? It certainly wasn’t for food. As one might expect of this apex predator, gamey-smelling wolf meat consists mostly of muscle and is widely considered inedible.

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A market may exist for wolf hides in some states, with a pelt fetching an average price of $210, according to Alaska Fish and Wildlife News. But when you add travel and hunting expenses to the cost of a tag for a single wolf, any gunman in it for the fur is more likely to end up in the red.

And when Luke Hilgemann, president of Hunter Nation, the out-of-state organization that filed a lawsuit to force Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources to stage the hunt without delay, explained that wolves needed to be exterminated to protect livestock and pets, even hunters had to smile. Official statistics available from 2018 show that under provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act, $144,509 in compensation was paid to Wisconsin farmers and pet owners for 33 cattle and 19 hunting dogs lost to wolves. That’s 33 cattle fatalities out of Wisconsin’s 3.45 million heads of cattle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Important to note, in view of hyperbolic wolf legends and lore: there has been only one human fatality (in rural Alaska) in the United States from a wolf attack since 1900. And only 32 attacks at all since 1782, according to Field and Stream.

Whereas, Farley Mowatt, in his 1963 classic memoir “Never Cry Wolf,” documented the beneficial role that wolf packs (complex, extended families dedicated to the care and feeding of its young) play in ecosystems, such as keeping healthy the Arctic’s caribou herd, and, arguably, doing the same for Wisconsin’s deer population.

Hilgemann was more candid, however, when he added that another reason for his organization’s lawsuit was to protect “hunting traditions.” Which, if he’s honest, amounts to stalking and shooting wolves for fun.

I confess, as a fisherman, that this is a rationale I can relate to. Anglers take to the water partly to harvest and eat fish, but mostly for sport in an escapist immersion in nature. We fish for recreation and pleasure. The difference is that we release, unharmed, any fish we don’t eat. The wolves trapped or hunted down this past week, on the other hand, were shot where they stood or finished off while tangled in a trap, never to see another day.

In President Trump’s last month in office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the wolf as an endangered species, citing its recovery over the last few decades. But the Trump administration had a record of a wholesale loosening or eliminating of worthwhile environmental restrictions, as well as ceding power over wildlife and resources to private industry and state governments. And Republican legislators in Wisconsin, still smarting from Joe Biden’s electoral upset in their state, had made known their fervent desire that the DNR fast-track a wolf hunt before the new Biden administration could restore protections.

Environmental groups including Earthjustice are suing to restore federal protections for wolves, maintaining that the recovery of these animals is a fiction insofar as they remain extinct in 80% of their former habitat. Wisconsin’s wolf population of approximately 1,000 was reduced by at least 15% in this week’s deadly shootaround.

Years ago, on a foggy summer morning, I came face to face with a wolf on the edge of the Chequamegon National Forest in Wisconsin’s northwoods. I had been walking with my dog on Barker Lake Road, where we had a lake cabin 30 miles east of Hayward.

Our black Lab, accustomed to chasing everything that moved, halted suddenly, its back hair standing up like porcupine needles.

A gray wolf stood on the high bank on the right side of the road, looking down. Though it was the first I had ever seen, it was unmistakable for its considerable size (100 pounds), its legs splayed wide, head slightly declined, its amber eyes intently focused on the two of us.

A single moment of silence, of fear and reverence, of holding my breath, before its head visibly relaxed, and it turned and vanished into the pines.

There is a chance that the wolf I saw was among this past week’s victims. Though wolves have inspired frustration and even hate in some, and awe and inspiration in others, it’s a disgrace and a crime if this wolf was shot to death for political vindication. And fun.

David McGrath, emeritus professor of English at the College of Dupage, is the author of the essay collection “South Siders.” He can be reached at mcgrathd@dupage.edu,

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