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Residents cry wolf over new neighbors: Threatened species comes to Door County

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel - June 29, 2003Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
by Dan Egan

Newport State Park - The stuffed wolf on display at this Door County park headquarters was always just for show.

Visitors would come in swearing they saw a wolf loping about the park's forests and meadows, but then they would get a close-up look at the animal's actual size. They would leave convinced that what they saw was only a coyote, or maybe a fox.

Wolves, after all, may have returned to the deer-thick forests of northern Wisconsin, but nobody figured the king of the carnivores would settle in a place as tame as Door County.

Then last month, an 82-pound wolf was shot by a hunter at the northern end of the county. The shooter claimed he thought he had a coyote in his sights.

The timber wolf is considered threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and killing one can lead to stiff penalties, but no charges were filed.

"The primary reason is, Door County has never had a confirmed wolf," said Mike Neal, Department of Natural Resources warden. "They're not supposed to be here."

Don't tell that to the wolves.

Wolves may be from Michigan

Evidence of wolves in the county has trickled in over the past several years. Some people have reported hearing howls. Others have seen tracks. Hunters have reported seeing the animals trying to chase down deer.

The reports were initially treated as suspect by the DNR, and the animals often written off as coyotes or dogs. Look at a map, and it is easy to see why. Much of the county is actually an island, thanks to the canal at Sturgeon Bay. This time of year, the animals would have to cross a bridge to get into the area. Also, the City of Green Bay and its suburbs stand between the county and the wolf packs that populate northern Wisconsin.

But take a closer look at the map. Door County is separated from the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula by only about 15 miles of rolling blue water - an insurmountable distance in summer, but "just a hop, skip and a jump in winter," said Dick Baudhuin, an avid hunter who says wolves have been prowling around his property just north of Sturgeon Bay.

The wolves, which can cover more than 20 miles a day, may be crossing Green Bay via Chambers Island, which sits almost directly between Door County and Michigan's Menominee County, about seven miles from each shore. Another possibility is that the animals are island-hopping south from the Garden Peninsula.

"I guess Door County would have a terrific deer population, but if (the wolves) stayed there too long, they'd be stuck," said Adrian Wydeven, head of the DNR's wolf recovery program.

That might be exactly what happened this year. Reports of wolf sightings have been on the rise, and warden Neal said the evidence suggests that there may now be as many as a half dozen animals in the county.

Making a comeback

The fact that wolves are at the Door is just the latest chapter in a remarkable comeback for the once-reviled species.

Wolves in Wisconsin were hunted, trapped and poisoned into oblivion by the 1950s, but thanks to protections under the Endangered Species Act, they have steadily expanded their range in the past two decades from northern Minnesota into Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula.

The latest count is 335, though Wydeven says the actual number may be higher, since wolves that leave their packs are hard to track. Whatever their number, it's apparent that the animals are steadily creeping out of the forests and into the paved corners of the state. In April, a wolf was killed by a car in Waukesha County. The year before, one was hit by a car in Dane County. The year before that, a wolf was found dead along I-94 in Jefferson County.

Evidence is mounting that Wisconsin may be overfilling with wolves.

"This is probably an indication that the habitat in the forest is starting to become saturated," said Wydeven. "We shouldn't assume that, because wolves are showing up in these places, that these places are necessarily suitable for wolves."

Wolves could mean problems

Because of the rising numbers, the federal government in April reclassified the wolf from "endangered" to "threatened." That means problem animals, such as those that grow addicted to livestock or pets, can be killed by state or federal employees.

That's good news to hunter Baudhuin, but not good enough. He says more should be done to control the animals, and soon. There have been no reports of wolves preying on livestock or pets in Door County, but Baudhuin says it is a matter of time before conflicts start popping up.

"No question they can exist up here," he said. "But are they going to co-exist with residents and not create problems? No."

Ephraim resident Steve Sauter takes a different view. He was excited to spot what he thought was a wolf last winter. He figures there is room in the county for them, especially in light of the large deer population. He doesn't think the annual hunt does enough to control deer numbers.

"We need to get rid of some of the damn deer," said Souter. "The coyotes can't take them down, and the car is the only thing left."

The automobile might also take its toll on Door County wolves. For now, only government employees can shoot them, and Neal said the next hunter who accidentally shoots a wolf could end up with a stiff fine.

"To kind of put it bluntly, they are on notice," he said. "(Wolves) are here. Now it gets back to one of the first things you're taught in hunter safety - unless you're 100 percent sure of knowing what you're shooting at, you do not shoot."

From the June 29, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel