“Somewhere to the eastward a wolf howled; lightly, questioningly. I knew the voice, for I had heard it many times before. It was George, sounding the wasteland for an echo from the missing members of his family.”

This scene, from the 1963 book “Never Cry Wolf” by Farley Mowat, was surely repeated in the woodlands of Wisconsin after the week of Feb. 22.

Colleen Dougherty

In a “deeply sad and shameful week for Wisconsin” (Megan Nicholson, HSUS) more than 2,000 hunters descended, wiping out more than 216 wolves in just three days — nearly double the limit set by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Forty-six percent of those killed were female, and since the hunt took place during breeding season — a breech of hunting ethics never before allowed in Wisconsin’s history —pregnant females were among the dead, raising the body count even higher.

It started in January when Trump delisted wolves from the Endangered Species Act just two weeks before he left office. A group called Hunter Nation rushed in and “cried wolf” (which means “to knowingly sound a false alarm”) when its president, Luke Hilgemann told the DNR that wolves needed to be exterminated to protect livestock and pets.

In truth, wolves were responsible for killing only 33 cattle out of the state’s 3.45 million head in an entire year, and the ranchers were reimbursed. David McGrath of the Chicago Sun Times wrote that even hunters themselves had to laugh at Hilgemann’s “warning.” Then, backed by Republican legislators in Wisconsin, angry over Trump’s loss in their state, they fast-tracked the mistimed and mismanaged hunt to take place before the Biden administration could restore protections for the wolves, who literally got caught in the crossfire.

The DNR shut down the hunt after three days, but Eric Lobner, its director of wildlife management admitted “we failed to stay on top” of the numbers and should have shut it down sooner.

Our beloved domestic dogs evolved from wolves many years ago. “Their loyalty, innate devotion, affection, and commitment to family came from their wild ancestors” (livingwithwolves.org.) It’s sadly ironic that 90 percent of the hunters used dogs to track down their ancient relatives so their human masters could kill them.

A spokesman with the Indian Fish and Wildlife Service, which represents 11 Ojibwe tribes, called the Wisconsin hunt “especially wasteful and disrespectful, and an example of what happens when legislators and courts favor special interest groups over the public.” (Chicago Sun Times)

Members of Hunter Nation called the nationwide reaction to the 80 percent overkill “hysteria,” which means “any outbreak of wild, uncontrolled feeling.” Wild is defined as “not civilized; savage; not easily controlled; lacking social or moral constraint; fantastically impractical; reckless; missing the target.”

Given the spirit of resentment, revenge, false alarms and misinformation that spurred this event and its outcome, we can certainly argue that the “hysteria” came from them.

Stories dating back centuries tell how indigenous tribes learned to hunt by watching the wolves (so did Mowat while he lived among them.) They, like the wolf, did not kill or overkill for sport or fun, and came to understand that balance is maintained when species exist together, and when the strongest of a herd are left to live and reproduce.

When wolves were removed from Yellowstone in the 1920s, the ecosystem deteriorated. Elk overpopulated, decimating riverbed foliage which led to a cascade of problems affecting everything from trees to fish, birds, insects, wildlife, soil conservation, water quality, and flooding. Their return in the mid 1990s has restored the park’s ecosystem (which now generates $35 million in eco-tourism every year.)

Colorado voters, no doubt referencing Yellowstone’s demise and restoration, recently shot down the idea of wolf hunts in favor of humane methods of livestock management including surveillance cameras, better herd husbandry, non-lethal electrified fences, and “fladry” — red flags hung on fences to deter predators. Ranchers are also reimbursed if they lose livestock.

The fate of Wisconsin’s wilderness ecosystem remains to be seen. They’ve lost almost 20 percent of their entire wolf population, and some of the next generation as well — the alpha male and female, a monogamous pair who mate for life, breed only once a year.

Melissa Smith, with Friends of Wisconsin Wolf and Wildlife, warned  when “you remove one wolf you’re destabilizing and killing the entire pack.” Who knows how many wolf families were torn apart last month in Wisconsin.

Farley Mowat came to respect wolves as intelligent, powerful, and loyal beings, not the blood-thirsty savages of folklore. Shamefully, last month in Wisconsin the blood-thirsty savages were, once again, us.

(Colleen Dougherty’s 12-year history in animal welfare includes work in a veterinary clinic, shelters in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and currently as a volunteer for the Valencia County Animal Shelter. She has been a speaker at the NM State Humane Conference on three occasions, presenting talks on caring for small mammals in the shelter setting, and compassion fatigue in animal welfare. She holds degrees in art and counseling therapy, and certificates in eco-psychology and feline massage therapy.)

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portrait of Colleen Dougherty animal welfare guest columnist
Colleen Dougherty, guest columnist