The relationship between wolves and deer is hotly debated in Wisconsin. Timothy Van Deelen, associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, visited the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point on March 26 to lecture on wolf management.
Van Deelen is an expert in deer ecology and a self-proclaimed “deer nerd.” He has authored or contributed to more than 60 scientific papers on the subject and has done extensive research.
The lecture was part of a colloquium on wolf ecology and management hosted by the Wisconsin Institute for Wildlife. The lectures have drawn about 260 students, faculty and professionals, and institute director Scott Hygnstrom plans to schedule two more for the spring semester.
“I wanted to roll something new out,” Hygnstrom said. “It’s a charismatic and controversial species.”
As a grad student at UWSP, Hygnstrom attended a lecture on wolves when there were only 18 in the state. There are now more than 800. He knows many wolf professionals and reached out to them for the colloquium.
“I’ve been in the field for close to 30 years,” he said. “I grabbed people who brought a Wisconsin flavor to wolf management and ecology.”
Van Deelen covered a range of topics in his presentation and referenced his own research several times. The focus was to illustrate the issue between wolves and humans in Wisconsin and how wolves affect deer populations.
Andrew Ziel, sophomore forest management major, attended the lecture because he was interested in learning more about wildlife management. He was surprised to hear during the presentation that wolves do not kill significant amounts of deer.
“I’m a deer hunter, so I feel like I’m a stakeholder in the situation,” Ziel said. “This is pretty much the place in the world if you want to shoot a big buck.”
Ziel thinks Wisconsin residents should be more concerned about wolf hunting because people generally believe hunting wolves improves deer populations.
“The people aren’t seeing it as a problem that needs to be addressed,” he said.
The lecture began with an early 20th century photograph of a taxidermy wolf mount and commentary on humans’ hostility toward wolves throughout history. The wolf in the picture was made to look more vicious and frightening than average.
The notion that wolves are ferocious predators has colored the opinions of hunters and management professionals for decades, and disputes have reached another climax since the relisting of wolves as an endangered species in late 2014.
The endangered status of the rebounding wolf population has driven some people to hunt them illegally. Research suggests a considerable amount of wolf mortality is a result of illegal killing.
“Whether you like it or not, humans are managing the populations of wolves on the landscape,” Van Deelen said. “The interpretation here is that frustrated people take matters into their own hands.”
The wolf controversy, he said, cannot be separated from the impact on deer. Further conflict stems from both the cultural and economic strength of Wisconsin’s deer hunters. He said Wisconsin has more deer hunters than any adjacent states and hunting is estimated to circulate more than a billion dollars annually.
To determine the causes of deer mortality, he conducted research and found that wolves accounted for less than 5 percent of adult deer deaths in a given year. Furthermore, his research suggested wolves are “opportunistic predators,” typically only preying on juveniles or weak individuals.
The presence of wolves on the landscape does have an ecological impact. Van Deelen said deer eat less vegetation in areas where there are more wolves, and deer eat more vegetation in areas with fewer wolves.
“On a local scale, wolves do put downward pressure on deer populations,” he said.
The lecture ended with the picture of the taxidermy wolf mount and remarks on evolution of philosophies behind wolf management.
Van Deelen said he would argue professionals know the science behind wolf management, but people have not changed their way of thinking.
“This is a difficult nut to crack,” he said. “We basically haven’t moved the needle much in terms of ethics.”