Tim Van Deelen, Associate Professor
Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
10:11 – Total Time
0:19 – Wisconsin wolf population over time
1:04 – What wolves need to thrive
1:44 – Hunting and the future of wolves
2:21 – Design of a wolf hunt
3:11 – Genetics of the wolf pack
3:38 – Wolf range in Wisconsin
4:31 – Wolf research activities
5:50 – What the research tells us about wolves
7:22 – Advice for people encountering wolves
8:00 – A day in the life of a wolf
9:11 – Variation in how wolves look
10:00 – Lead out
Our evolving relationship with wolves. We’re visiting today with Tim Van Deelen, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin… and I’m Sevie Kenyon.
Sevie Kenyon: Tim, welcome to our microphone. Tim, can you give us an idea of how the wolf population has changed over time?
Tim Van Deelen: About 1978 managers began noticing wolf tracks in the far northwestern part of the state. And in what turned out to be, remarkably good foresight, the DNR began tracking those individuals… so they began putting radio collars on wolves, almost as soon as they showed up. So we have a very good idea of how the wolf population grew in Wisconsin. And, it was essentially flat, meaning, oh… not more then 50 individuals until the mid 90s when the population began to really take off. And, for a while there it looked like it was growing exponentially and in recent years it’s begun slowing down. We’re currently at about, 800 wolves.
Sevie Kenyon: And Tim, what do these wolves need?
Tim Van Deelen: Wolves are large mammal specialists in Wisconsin… that means they’re primarily predators of white-tailed deer. So, we have relatively high deer populations throughout Wisconsin. So if you put together, a base level of prey for them to harvest, but also wilder country, places where they’re not gonna run into humans and the mortality sources associated with humans, like getting hit on the road, being shot at because they’re depredating calves or something. So, a little bit of space and lots of deer and wolves will thrive.
Sevie Kenyon: Where do you see the wolf pack in the state going here in the future?
Tim Van Deelen: Well, there’s pretty intense pressure right now for a wolf hunt of some sort. The idea there is that, among some stake-holders, either the wolf population is too high or the depredations are too intolerable, and the hunt is really designed to address those two things. But at the same time, it’s a recently recovered, endangered species, so the hunt has to be sustainable in the sense that you can’t drive the population back to some level at which it would be vulnerable to extinction again.
Sevie Kenyon: And Tim, can you give us some examples of how that might be designed?
Tim Van Deelen: Well I think whatever you think of wolves, common sense would suggest that there are really two goals. You would like the managers to be able to direct the harvest—and this is a recreational harvest—you’d like them to, through the use of zones, and season lengths and quotas, to direct the harvest to places where depredation problems are the most severe…and away from, for instance, big chunks of public land where you can point to that part of the landscape and say this is the part of the wolf population that we’re counting on for stability. So, I kind of favor an idea where you have refuge areas where you get the sustainability and then harvest areas where you’re really trying to address the depredations that particularly livestock owners are experiencing.
Sevie Kenyon: Tim, is there something about the hunt that would protect the genetic integrity of the pack?
Tim Van Deelen: Our wolf population is really contiguous with the wolf population in the Upper Peninsula and in Minnesota. You really need a relatively small number of individuals entering the population from two connecting populations each year to maintain the genetic diversity here. Now, that said… it’s something that we need to continue to monitor as we move forward.
Sevie Kenyon: Tim, can you give us a sense as to the range of wolves here in the state?
Tim Van Deelen: The northern third of Wisconsin right now is essentially occupied wolf range. And then we have a part of Central Wisconsin, that we call the Central Forest that also is occupied wolf range. And then we have agricultural land at the margins which is sort of uncertain. What we’re experiencing right now is a lot of lone wolves, dispersing wolves that are sort of moving southwest, out of the north into the farm country. And, as they move from the northeast to the southwest, they experience more human beings, more mortality sources associated with human beings and less friendly habitats. So, the wave front, if you will…of our wolf population hasn’t stabilized yet, but it appears to be slowing down.
Sevie Kenyon: Tim, can you give us an idea of where your research is going with wolves?
Tim Van Deelen: We’ve been working with the Department of Natural Resources… they’ve been radio collaring wolves since the late 1970s, so there’s an unbroken record of telemetry data that covers the entire period of wolf recovery in Wisconsin, and it’s really a remarkable data-set. I have a Ph.D student and we’re working together to understand the population dynamics of Wisconsin’s wolves as they move into more agricultural lands. And, that’s important because understanding the population dynamics is where you start when planning for management. And, recently, with the delisting of the wolves, under the federal endangered species act, management goes from what’s essentially protection, under the federal law, to a more active management that might include, for instance, a wolf hunt….administered by the State of Wisconsin. And so much of the information that we’re finding on, for instance, survival rates, growth rates in the population is going to feed into predictive models that helps us understand the effects of this level of harvest in this portion of Wisconsin versus another level of harvest in another level of or another portion of Wisconsin. It gives managers a tool they can sort of game out what the management is going to do to the population.
Sevie Kenyon: Tim, can you give us a sense of how you go about your research?
Tim Van Deelen: We’re working with computer models that are based on survival rates, age specific survival rates that we can calculate from the fates of radio-collared individuals. So, when you put a radio collar on a wolf, you follow it through time and at some point that record either ends, because the collar runs out of its battery life, or the wolf dies for some reason. So, if a wolf dies, you can go in there and try to infer what killed it: illegal, legal, natural, human cause, those sorts of things. And, with enough of those observations, the patterns begin to emerge and you can say, for instance, you know…it’s riskier in this part of Wisconsin’s landscape to be a wolf then it is to be in this part of Wisconsin’s landscape. And so one of the things we’re doing is creating a map of Wisconsin where the risk for being a wolf changes, depending on where you are. We can then, in a computer simulation, can populate the Wisconsin landscape, with roughly 800 wolves—which is what we have now—and look at the interplay between say, additional mortalities, say a harvest, and the background mortality, which is a function of where it is in the landscape, and begin thinking about what does a sustainable yield look like? What’s a responsible way to address, depredation concerns, but also ensure the stability of the population moving forward, so it doesn’t become endangered again.
Sevie Kenyon: Tim, any advice for people out enjoying the outdoors and possible encounters with wolves?
Tim Van Deelen: Well, I think wolves are fantastic, fascinating animals and they’re very, it’s very rare that you see them. People who live in the north see them occasionally, but if you’re going for a hike in wolf country, you should consider yourself lucky if you see a track or some other sign of a wolf you could, you should consider yourself very lucky if you get to see one. Wolves are not dangerous to humans by and large. Frankly, there are far more black bears in Wisconsin, if you’re worried about big, furry animals. But, wolves, I think…are very fascinating creatures and I think it’s important that we get this right, moving forward.
Sevie Kenyon: Tim, can you describe, perhaps, the day in the life of a wolf here in the state?
Tim Van Deelen: Most of what a wolf is doing when it is awake is hunting. A wolf is a coursing predator, which means that it chases its prey. And, there’s behavior research, that suggests that wolves kinda test their prey, so when they encounter a deer or a moose or something there’s some judgment that the individual wolf makes or that the pack makes on whether it’s worth their time to engage that animal in a chase, because it’s very energetically expensive to, for instance, chase a deer until the deer is exhausted, pull it down and then eat it. So, wolves have survived over the eons, because they’ve figured out a way to understand that cost-benefit calculation. But, most of what they’re doing, while they’re awake, is coursing through their home range looking for prey, looking for deer, looking for beavers—once the lakes are no longer frozen—the occasional smaller animal that they can get their paws on. They live on this knife-edge, between having enough food to survive and being threatened with starvation.
Sevie Kenyon: Tim, can you perhaps describe the variation in the animals, physically?
Tim Van Deelen: We have a lot of variation in color in our Midwestern wolves, from jet black to really a light, tawny color. In size, we’re sort of at this introgression between an eastern subspecies—depending on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter—that is a smaller, forest dwelling wolf and a more western subspecies, which is a physically bigger wolf, more characteristic of open country and our wolves are somewhere intermediate to that. The remarkable thing is that when you see a wolf that you’re surprised at how big it is. It’s really quite a bit bigger then our native coyote. Wolves have very big paws, which is an adaption for being on snow.
Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with Tim Van Deelen, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin… and I’m Sevie Kenyon.