Doug and I wrote this article for Isthmus.
In 2017 the state of Wisconsin paid a record $99,400 to hunters whose dogs were killed by wolves. Since the program began in 1985, the state has paid hunters more than $700,000 for dogs that were killed by wolves. No other state pays hunters for dogs that are killed this way — and Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) wants to end the practice.
“It’s not society’s job to reimburse individuals who voluntarily jeopardize the wellbeing of their dogs by putting them in harm’s way,” Risser tells Isthmus. “People get insurance for this kind of risk. Why should the taxpayers pick up this cost? There are better ways to use the state’s resources.”
Risser is now looking for co-sponsors for a bill that would end the payments. “It will be interesting to see how my colleagues respond,” he says.
Melissa Smith, executive director of Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf, says the payment system shows the state is beholden to a small group of people. “The hunting community has a giant overreach even though the majority of Wisconsin residents don’t hunt,” she says. “This compensation is hunter welfare. It’s an entitlement.”
It’s not currently legal to hunt gray wolves in Wisconsin — they’re on the endangered species list. However, there is an effort to remove protections, which would bring back a legal hunt for the animals in Wisconsin. The wolves were briefly delisted in 2012, during which Wisconsin allowed them to be hunted with the use of dogs. The wolves were protected again in 2014, which ended Wisconsin’s hunt.
However, dogs are still used to hunt other animals — including bear, coyote, bobcat and raccoon. During these hunts (or training exercises), the dogs sometimes encounter wolf packs and are killed.
Each hunter can get up to $2,500 per dog. When a hunter believes his dog has been injured or killed by a wolf, a representative of the USDA Wildlife Services investigates the case to determine if a wolf is responsible, a service that state residents also pay for. The DNR policy does not compensate hunters if their dogs are killed by other animals, only wolves.
Risser worries that the doubling of compensation claims last year could be the start of a trend. But Adrian Wydeven, a retired DNR wildlife and wolf specialist still active in wolf monitoring, suspects that figure may be an anomaly. Compensation is generally made in the year after the dog injury, he says. DNR records show that 41 dogs were killed and 11 injured in 2016 and compensation was paid in 2017. In 2017, claims dropped, with 15 dogs killed and seven injured. Wydeven notes that these “figures are more in line with the average of the past 10 years.”
Wydeven calls the compensation program complex. “We don’t pay for dogs killed by coyotes or bears or any other wildlife species. Maybe it made sense when wolves were highly endangered, and wolves killing a hound was an unusual occurrence. Wolves are a presence on the landscape now.”
At a 2014 meeting, DNR Wolf Advisory Committee members voted nine to eight to recommend discontinuing these payments. Wydeven, who was at the meeting, remembers that all the biologists on the committee approved stopping payments. But he adds, DNR administrators kept the payment program because it is part of a state statute.
Wydeven worries about the consequences of ending the program.
“With the payment program in place, dogs that get killed will be reported, and the DNR gets very exact data on where the attacks occurred and what packs are involved,” says Wydeven. “That allows them to alert hunters so they can avoid the area or be more cautious.”
The number of wolves in Wisconsin is now estimated at 925 to 955, a peak since the animals were listed as endangered. Wydeven worries ending the compensation program to hunters will lead to more poaching of wolves. “Elimination of payments would further encourage lawless behavior,” he says, “and wolves would be exposed to higher rates of illegal killing. Bear hunters seem to accept that if they don’t kill wolves, they will get paid for any dogs they lose.”
Smith doesn’t buy that argument. “I think people who poach wolves are going to poach no matter what,” she says. These conflicting theories aren’t likely to be put to the test soon.
Risser introduced a similar bill last year without success. “I don’t think there is much chance of passing this legislation this time around,” says Risser. “But we keep working on it, and maybe the idea will eventually come across.”