In Wisconsin, poaching that targets gray wolves may be exacerbated by winter weather and hunting seasons for other animals, according to a new analysis.
Researchers looked at three decades of wolf tracking data and found that poaching in the state increases during snowy periods when wolf tracks are easier to detect. When these conditions coincided with hunting seasons for deer and other large mammals, the poaching rate increased more than sixfold. The findings underscore the need for stronger protection for wolves, the study authors wrote Feb. 2 in Scientific reports.
“There’s a good chance a wolf in Wisconsin is more likely to die from poaching than any other cause,” says Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila, Big River Connectivity and Conservation Science Manager. for Project Coyote, a non-profit organization based in Larkspur, California. and co-author of the article. Yet poaching is often underestimated when states develop population estimates used to determine protections and hunting quotas. “It is critical that state agencies focus on those periods of time when these [hunting] activities increase, as we see poaching increasing during these times,” he says.
Gray wolves once roamed much of North America. However, they were hunted nearly to extinction in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries before being granted protection under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s. .
[Related: Wisconsin’s gray wolves are in serious trouble]
In October 2020, the Trump administration announced that it was removing gray wolves from the endangered species list in the lower 48 states. This led to an increase in hunting in Wisconsin which, according to Santiago-Ávila and his collaborators, caused the population to drop by an alarming 27-33%. Six Native American tribes in northern Wisconsin and environmental groups have filed lawsuits to block a second hunt that was supposed to begin in November. In October, a judge ordered a halt to hunting while the state Department of Natural Resources is proposing a new wolf management plan, which is expected to be finalized by June.
Previous studies have indicated that poaching is the leading cause of death for most wolf populations in the United States, Santiago-Ávila says, and that illegal killing is increasing after the relaxation of protections. People poach wolves for a variety of reasons, including concern for livestock and general animosity toward the animal and other predators. Some deer and bear hunters also view wolves as competition or a threat to their dogs.
For the new research, the team investigated poaching during the years when gray wolves were still listed as endangered. They used data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which tracked 495 radio-collared wolves between 1979 and 2012.
To identify the most dangerous times of year for wolves, the researchers analyzed how the poaching rate changed in response to weather conditions and human activities. These included hunting seasons for other animals such as deer and bears, and times when hunting dogs were trained. The team looked at the number of reported poaching deaths, in which a carcass is recovered, as well as cases where wolves went missing when their transmitters stopped working, which is almost always the result of poachers destroying the collar, explains Adrian Treves, ecologist at the Institute. University of Wisconsin-Madison and another co-author of the new findings.
He and his colleagues found that poaching slowed between mid-April and early July, when the snow had melted and hunting and hunting were not permitted. “Adult wolves have a break during this time,” Santiago-Ávila explains. “They’re not as easy to detect and there’s no one around.”
By comparison, the poaching rate more than doubled from late winter to early spring, when there was still snow on the ground but hunting and hunting had ceased. But when snow and hunting periods overlapped from late fall to early winter, the poaching rate increased by more than 650%.
Wolf disappearances also increased by more than 50% during the snowy period after the hunt ended, and smaller amounts from July to early January. Researchers suspect that poachers are more willing to take the time to tamper with the collars of wolves they’ve killed when there are fewer people about to notice and report them, Treves says.
The new findings indicate that even when wolves are supposed to be protected, snow cover and hunting allow poaching to thrive. There are several possible explanations why poaching appears to increase when these two factors coincide.
More potential poachers could roam during this season, either because they are legally hunting other prey or because they are ready to use the hustle and bustle of the hunts as cover.
However, “the chances of being caught increase when there are hundreds or even thousands of hunters in the field,” says Treves. This could cause poachers to change their behavior during hunting seasons, such as leaving collars behind after killing a wolf for fear of getting caught if they stay after the deed. “There’s a lot of poaching going on that’s being detected because the collars aren’t damaged.”
Removing wolves from the endangered species list and establishing wolf hunting in Wisconsin could signal to the public that wolves are not valued and the population is not endangered, which emboldens more poachers, says Santiago-Ávila.
In addition to restricting hunting, the state could provide additional protection by implementing forest patrols to deter poachers, Treves says. He and his colleagues once observed that poaching declined when Wisconsin sent people to monitor wolf populations in the late 1990s.
There is already strong evidence that poaching and other human activities are a major cause of death for top predators, wrote Andrés Ordiz, a conservation biologist at the University of León in Spain who was not involved in the survey. research, in an e-mail. “It’s a well-known fact, but [this] The study is important because it quantifies poaching in a specific study area and takes into account different factors, such as seasonality, and includes a large data set,” said Ordiz, who studies interactions between brown bears. and wolves in Scandinavia. “It seems to me that the results should be considered by conservation and management agencies in this area, and the study is also of interest elsewhere.”
The new study underscores the importance of considering the impact of poaching when estimating wolf populations, wrote Lisette Waits, a conservation biologist at the University of Idaho who has studied gray wolves in Idaho and North Carolina Red Wolves, in an email.
“These findings are very interesting and valuable in documenting the increased mortality and poaching risks for protected wolves associated with legal hunting seasons,” Waits said. “This study provides insight into the importance of developing policies and procedures such as increased law enforcement during active hunting seasons to minimize risk to endangered carnivores like wolves.”