Wolves at Our Door

Eric Koens with the remains of one
of his calves, slaughtered by wolves.

When Eric and Sue Koens moved to northwestern Wisconsin twenty-four years ago to escape the congestion and irritations from the encroaching urban settlements of southern Wisconsin, they never dreamed they would soon be embroiled in a fight against an enemy that had been absent from rural America for decades.

Now the Koens are wrestling with the problems of protecting their herd of registered polled Hereford cattle while trying to comply with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s wolf management regulations.

Wolves had been largely absent from Wisconsin for most of the Twentieth Century until around 1970 when a few began drifting in from Minnesota and Northern Michigan. By 1989 the wolves were thriving and urban environmental activists began pushing for their protection.

To satisfy the demands of the wolf-huggers, Wisconsin DNR then formulated a wolf recovery plan with the goal of having packs totaling around 80 individuals by 2000. The Department determined that the northern part of the state, where Eric and Sue Koens’ farm is located, would be ideal wolf habitat because of scattered wooded areas and the fact that not many livestock are located there.

Somehow, DNR overlooked the large farming operations that raise thousands of head of cattle and other domestic livestock. The wolves thrived and multiplied and soon began helping themselves to U.S.D.A. choice beef.

By the late 1990s stock losses increased to the point that DNR promised to pay farmers for their lost cattle if they would just put up with the wolves. In order to be eligible for restitution a farmer had to prove wolves were really the culprits, a difficult task at best because there is usually very little left of their hapless victims once the wolves finish dining.

Koens says scientific calf mortality studies conclude only about twenty percent of the missing animals are ever found which means farmers are paid for only one in five lost animals. And no wonder the losses were mounting. By 1999, the Wisconsin wolf population had ballooned to 200 predators roaming the state.

DNR then determined it must develop a wolf management plan to deal with the overflow and a twenty-three member committee was chosen to work out the details. The committee consisted of representatives of DNR, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Indian tribes, county foresters and the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, but no livestock producers were invited to participate.

Koens said he knew nothing of the wolf promotion program until 1999, when he was invited to sit in on a round table discussion of the management plan. He came away from the meeting shocked and angered that DNR was actively promoting and protecting wolves, and had been doing so since 1989.

He immediately contacted the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association and learned they knew nothing of it either. “They [DNR] passed it [the Wolf Management Plan] without our input. We hadn’t even been considered,” he said.

The situation has worsened since those days and the stress of living with the wolves is taking its toll. No one is allowed to bother the predators and farmers are forced to stand by helplessly as their cattle are attacked. “The cattle are being run at night by wolves, through fences, trampling calves in the rush to escape. The calves are often injured or killed but those losses are not covered under the state’s reimbursement plan,” says Koens.

The depredations at some farms are so severe they are termed “chronic farms.” For some reason the wolves continue to hit certain farms year after year. In particular, a six-hundred head cattle operation in Burnett County has been on the hit list for several years. In 2001, the operators lost 94 head of calves; in 2002, over 80 calves were lost and in 2003, more of the same.

Koens noted that Wisconsin had one chronic farm in 2002, by 2003 the figure had risen to seven and now it is predicted there will be an additional four to six chronic farms in 2004.

The wolf problem is growing so fast, DNR is having trouble keeping its promise to pay livestock producers to raise wolf food. Last year, the department paid out $75,668 and the year before, it was $62,560, well over the $36,000 allocated for reimbursement.

When the DNR announced last fall that it would not send out anymore payments in 2003 because of a budget shortfall, Koens marched on DNR headquarters in Madison and demanded the restitution money called for in the wolf management plan. As a result, DNR shifted money from other programs to pay the claims. “Now I have to fight for this that they have promised to pay us along with all the other problems they have created,” he lamented.

Another concern of Koens is that the burgeoning wolf population could contribute to the spread of neosporosis, an organism linked to canines that causes abortions in cattle. He warned DNR officials about the potential problem with their wolves and requested blood samples for examination. He hit a brick wall on that issue and then turned to scientists in Minnesota and Illinois for help.

Koens contacted Dr. David Mech, U.S.G.S. wolf research scientist in Minnesota, to send wolf blood samples to Dr. Milton McAllister of the University of Illinois. Dr. McAllister found that after testing 164 blood samples more than one-third carried the neosporosis antibodies, much higher than those of dogs and coyotes. That finding should not be surprising since wolves’ diet is primarily meat, some of which is contaminated by the neosporosis organism.

The government’s wolf protection program raises serious property rights issues, too, a fact that concerns Koens very much. “I pay taxes on this farm for the sole purpose of [raising] these cattle. There are laws about feral dogs roaming farms; that is not tolerated. Yet these wolves have full range here of our private property. If I had a million dollars and lots of time and could hire some legal help, I could pursue it, but you’re fighting the government,” Koens said.

Wisconsin wolves are thriving; current estimates place their numbers at nearly 400, having long-ago passed the 80 animal target goal. If the populations continue their rapid acceleration without serious efforts to control them there are dangerous times ahead.

The wolves are hardly endangered but the same can’t be said for the future of Wisconsin’s livestock industry. “It’s going to put us out of business,” says Koens. “Wisconsin ranks 7th in livestock production in the U.S., but no one in the Department of Natural Resources has even considered what the wolf program is doing to this vital industry,” he continued.

“A man is going to get to the point where he won’t be able to tolerate the financial loss and the emotional stress of dealing with the destruction of his life’s work,” he said.

Eric and Sue Koens live on a 400 acre farm in northwestern Wisconsin where they have spent the last 24 years raising registered Polled Hereford Cattle. Eric is actively involved in numerous state and national cattle organizations and is a Director of the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association.

For additional information dispelling the myths about wolves, visit the Abundant Wildlife Society of North America website.