Wisconsin bear hunters achieved a typically high success rate during a monthlong season that concluded last week, but experts are still trying to determine why a record number of hunting dogs were killed in the process.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, at least 40 dogs were preyed upon by wolves during a hunt that allowed the use of dogs to pursue and tree black bears.
That's nearly double the previous record of 23 hunting dog deaths, in a phenomenon that might be attributed to a growing wolf population in the Badger State.
"We don't have much to go on except speculation," said Dave MacFarland, carnivore specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources. "[But] everybody can agree that we hope we don't see a repeat of what we saw this year."
Gray wolves, also called timber wolves, are more firmly established in Wisconsin than at any time in recent history, numbering about 900 animals.
The wolves, which reside and hunt in packs, were removed from the federal list of endangered species 2012. But they were relisted in 2014.
Wolf hunts were allowed briefly after the delisting, but are now banned. Wolf predation on livestock and hunting dogs is an increasingly contentious issue.
"It's a terrible thing when your dog is eaten alive, you know, and it hasn't happened to me yet, but a lot of guys that I know, they've lost a lot of good dogs," Manny Eble, a bear hunter, told WBAY.
Adrian Wydeven, a former state wildlife biologist, told WBAY that the alarming rise in hunting dog deaths is not necessarily tied to a growing wolf population.
Wydeven explained that only seven dog deaths occurred during the 2012 bear-hunting season, when the wolf population was almost as large as it is now.
However, Eble is among hunters who believe that Wisconsin's wolf population is much higher than the state's estimate of 900.
"When you're looking for tracks in the winter coyote-hunting season, you'll find 25 wolf tracks to two coyote tracks," he said.
Many believe that if wolf hunting were allowed, depredation on hunting dogs and livestock would be sharply reduced.
But advocates for gray wolves, as integral components of a fragile ecosystem, believe that ranchers could do more to protect their livestock, and that too many hunters run dogs through areas state-listed as "wolf caution areas."
"I don't think they care much about their dogs," Melissa Smith, executive director of Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf," told the State Journal.
Wisconsin bear hunters killed 4,643 black bears – falling just short of the state's quota – during a season that concluded last Tuesday.
Before hunting season, the state's bear population was estimated to number 28,900.
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