Federal wildlife agents investigating wolf killed Dec. 25 in northern Wisconsin

Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Federal wildlife agents are investigating the Dec. 25 killing of a gray wolf in northern Wisconsin.

Federal wildlife agents are investigating a northern Wisconsin resident regarding the Dec. 25 killing of a gray wolf on his property.

The man, who has not been charged and therefore is not being identified, allegedly used a firearm to shoot and kill the wolf near his residence.

The man reported the incident, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents responded to the scene.

The USFWS' Office of Law Enforcement is leading the investigation.

The wolf, a female, was wearing a GPS tracking collar; its carcass was taken into custody and has been examined, said Randy Johnson, DNR large carnivore specialist.

Investigations into such cases typically involve interviews with the shooter, examination of the scene and collection of physical evidence.

Investigators will try to determine whether the shooting was justified. Since a 2022 federal court ruling, wolves in Wisconsin and most other states are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

As a result of its status, lethal force can be used against a wolf only in defense of human life.

If the shooting was not justified, charges can be substantial. Penalties for illegally killing an animal protected by the Endangered Species Act are up to one year imprisonment and up to a $100,000 fine for individuals and up to a $200,000 fine for organizations, according to the USFWS.

Because the investigation is active, both the USFWS and DNR declined to release additional details on the case.

Johnson said it wouldn't surprise him if the investigation lasted several more weeks.

Wolf conflicts with humans have grown as animal's population has increased

There has not been a confirmed wolf attack on a human in Wisconsin in modern history, according to DNR records.

Native to Wisconsin, wolves were wiped out of the state by the 1960s by bounties and unregulated killing. But buoyed by protections, including the 1973 federal Endangered Species Act, wolves began to disperse from a core population in northern Minnesota and repopulate areas of Wisconsin.

A graph shows the gray wolf population and number of packs in Wisconsin from 2000 to 2023.

In April 2023, Wisconsin had 1,007 wolves in 283 packs, according to the latest population estimate from the DNR.

As the number of wolves has increased over the last several decades, conflicts with humans have grown, too.

A 2017 incident on public land in Adams County, in which a man fired a handgun at and reportedly hit a wolf that approached him, did not qualify as a wolf attack, the DNR concluded.

An investigation was not able to find the wolf; the man was not cited.

In November, a bowhunter in Buffalo County shot and killed a cougar that approached his tree stand. The man told DNR wardens he feared for his safety; he also was not cited. The cougar is a protected species in Wisconsin but is not listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Wolf attacks on humans are rare and fatal wolf attacks are extremely rare, according to a report by John D. C. Linnell, Ekaterian Kovtun and Ive Rouart of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. From 2002-20, the researchers documented 26 fatal wolf attacks on humans worldwide. Most were in Turkey (12), Iran (6) and India (4).

Two were in North America: one in 2005 in Canada and one in 2010 in Alaska.

In the Lower 48 only one non-fatal wolf attack took place from 2002-20. In that case a wolf bit the head of a teenager sleeping on the ground at a campsite near Lake Winnibigoshish, Minnesota. The boy was able to chase the wolf away and was treated for his wound.

No timeline for decision on this wolf killing case is known

The potential timeline for a decision in the northern Wisconsin wolf killing case is uncertain.

A USFWS representative said Thursday the agency was unable to share details at this point in the investigation and offered no hint as to when it would be finalized.

The DNR partners with U.S. Department of Agriculture - Wildlife Services to address wolf conflicts in Wisconsin.

If a wolf is exhibiting threatening or dangerous behavior, the public should contact USDA-Wildlife Services staff immediately. If in northern Wisconsin, call (800) 228-1368 or (715) 369-5221; in southern Wisconsin call (800) 433-0663 or (920) 324-4514.

While gray wolves are listed as a federally endangered species, it remains unlawful to shoot a wolf unless there is an immediate threat to human safety.