By Tom Davis
One day this past July, Sharon Potter turned loose her crew of five house dogs for their early morning constitutional. A professional dog trainer and breeder of Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Potter is the owner of Red Branch Kennels, in the Sand Country of central Wisconsin.
Potter’s dogs typically take care of business ASAP, so she was a bit puzzled when only three of the five returned. Stepping outside to investigate, she heard what she describes as “a commotion” coming from the woods about 100 yards from the house.
The commotion soon subsided; still, it was a little while before the dogs emerged from the woods. When they did, Potter’s heart leapt into her throat. Both dogs were torn and bleeding around their heads, necks and foreparts, although the male—whose wounds would require multiple sutures as well as a drain in one of his front legs—clearly had gotten the worst of it. Upon examining her dogs’ injuries, a wildlife specialist from the US Department of Agriculture confirmed what Potter already knew: that her dogs had been attacked by a wolf.
When the Endangered Species Act became law, in 1973, the only state outside of Alaska with a self-sustaining population of gray wolves (Canis lupus) was Minnesota. Once the wolf came under the ESA’s protection, however, the species gradually reclaimed its historic range in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. For the record, wolves were not “reintroduced” to these areas; the animals simply drifted in from Minnesota and Ontario and successfully recolonized the habitat.
They were so successful, in fact, that in late 2011 the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the Western Great Lakes wolf population was no longer in need of protection and “delisted” it—that is, removed it from the federal list of endangered and threatened species. This effectively gave more authority to the states, including the ability to establish hunting seasons for the purpose of managing the populations. Minnesota and Wisconsin held wolf seasons in 2012, ’13 and ’14; Michigan held a single season in 2014.
Then, late that same year, a lawsuit brought by several parties resulted in a court decision relisting the gray wolf. At press time the wolf remains protected in these states under the provisions of the ESA . . . but it appears that’s about to change. In 2019 the USFWS announced its intention to delist the wolf once again—this time throughout the Lower 48—and to return primary management responsibilities to the states.
According to the most recent estimates, there are about 2,655 wolves in Minnesota, 662 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and between 914 and 978 in Wisconsin. The really troubling thing for many readers of this magazine, though, is that the range occupied by these wolves coincides with eerie precision to the swath of territory that offers some of the best grouse and woodcock hunting in the US.
Why is this troubling? After all, despite the voluminous lore and legend surrounding “the big bad wolf,” documented instances of wolves attacking humans in North America are incredibly rare. Your chances of being injured in a hunting accident or in a car accident while traveling to hunt are orders of magnitude greater than your chances of being jumped by a wolf. So are your chances of being killed by a bee sting or a lightning strike, for that matter.
So while we may feel a tingle of apprehension when we’re chasing birds in wolf country, it isn’t our own safety that most concerns us. It’s the safety of our dogs. I know a couple of grouse hunters who’ve taken to wearing sidearms in the woods for just this reason—although I hasten to point out that, as the law now stands, the only legally permissible reason for shooting a wolf is in self-defense or in defense of other humans who appear to be in imminent danger.
Both of these aforementioned hunters started packing after what they described as “unnerving encounters” with wolves. Anecdotally, the incidence of these encounters appears to be on the rise. SSM Contributing Editor Tom Huggler reports that several of his friends in Michigan’s UP have had their dogs “shadowed” by wolves while grouse hunting.
Damian Wilmot is a highly respected wingshooting and fly-fishing guide who hunts birds in the extreme northwest corner of Wisconsin—some of the wildest, “wolfiest” country in the state. He regularly hears wolves howling from his cabin near the upper Bois Brule River, but when I asked him if he’d ever had a wolf encounter with his German shorthairs, he said, “The short answer is, ‘No.’ The closest we’ve come, at least to my knowledge, was one morning a couple of years ago. There were a few inches of fresh snow on the ground, and when we came to an old logger’s landing—an opening in the woods, basically—it was absolutely trampled by wolf tracks. I turned to my buddy and said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’”
Another Wisconsinite, professional pointing-dog trainer Rod Lein, told me that while neither he nor any of his bird hunting/field-trialing friends has ever had a wolf encounter, he knows of two dogs, both English setters, that were killed by bears. Just to add some perspective to this, the state of Wisconsin has, since 1985, maintained a comprehensive database of dog “depredations” from wolves. And in that time not a single gundog has been killed by a wolf in a hunting situation. With the exception of two attacks on English setters in 2014 (both dogs survived), every incident involving gundogs has occurred, like Sharon Potter’s, in a non-hunting situation.
But here’s the kicker: Since 1985, somewhere in the vicinity of 400 hounds in Wisconsin have been killed by wolves while hunting. The vast majority of these cases have involved bear hounds—Plotts, Walkers, redbones and so on—although hounds running other game have been targeted as well. Even a few rabbit-hunting beagles have been picked off.
Why are hounds at such vastly greater risk than gundogs? The biggest factor seems to be human proximity. Hounds may follow a track for miles, putting significant distance between themselves and their handlers; and, with the human element thus removed from the equation, wolves, territorial by nature, are more likely to respond aggressively to canine intrusion. It also is believed that wolves may interpret the baying of hounds as a kind of challenge, adding fuel to the fire of their territorial behavior.
We bird hunters, in contrast, stay in much closer contact with our dogs (in theory, anyway), and we also make a lot more noise: crashing through the woods, tooting whistles, hollering at our dogs (who typically are wearing bells and/or beepers), even touching off our smokepoles on occasion. It tends to resemble a moving rodeo, but it has the same effect on wolves, apparently, as the wail of a police siren on an underage drinking party.
Regardless of the impending delisting and the possibility that hunting seasons will be reinstated at some point, the bottom line is that the wolves of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s UP are here to stay. Fortunately, the danger they pose to gundogs appears to be minimal, and we can shrink it even further by doing two things: trying to avoid areas of known wolf activity (Wisconsin has online maps of “wolf caution areas”) and equipping our dogs with GPS collars. If there’s one scenario that ought to scare the bejeesus out of you—I know it does me—it’s the thought of losing a dog in wolf country. Putting a GPS collar on your dog removes that possibility—and should add significantly to your peace of mind.
Still, when the orbits of wolves and dogs overlap, there’s always going to be an element of risk. Just ask Sharon Potter. “I’m just glad that there were two dogs fighting that wolf,” she told me. “I shudder to think what would have happened if there’d been only one . . . .”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a webpage with suggestions on ways to reduce dog-wolf conflicts.