Scientists warn federal officials that Wisconsin wolf population estimates are faulty

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MADISON, Wisconsin — Scientists are warning federal wildlife officials that Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources produced a flawed wolf population estimate for the 18 months after January 2012 when the animals were removed from a federal endangered species list.

The researchers said in a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month that the 2012-13 wolf monitoring report the DNR sent to the federal agency omitted information. Missing from the report was data on how many radio-collared wolves disappeared, the date of death of radio-collared animals that were recovered and an acknowledgment that poaching could have affected the population, the scientists said.

The DNR under-reported wolf mortality at 28.22 percent, they said, estimating it could actually be within the 35 percent to 55 percent range for the 18 months through June 2013.

DNR Large Carnivore Specialist Dave MacFarland said in an email to The Associated Press late Wednesday afternoon that Fish and Wildlife didn't require the information that was left out of the report. A review team made up of wolf experts looked over the data and didn't raise the same concerns as the researchers, he added.

What's more, the DNR has recently collaborated with UW-Madison to compile the data and has made the information available in "university reports."

The email did not say what the data shows or where it could be located. DNR spokesman Bill Cosh responded to an after-hours request Wednesday evening for more details by saying the data is in a 400-page dissertation housed at UW-Madison's library.

A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Midwest region didn't return a message.

The federal government removed wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin from the endangered species list in January 2012. Days later, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin introduced a bill setting up a four-and-a-half month wolf season. The legislation allows hunters to use up to six dogs to track and trail wolves. Animal rights advocates contend using dogs will lead to bloody hound-wolf clashes in the woods.

The scientists warned that hunting wolves with hounds is a new threat to the population and suggested additional regulation would be required to avoid unlawful or unsustainable killing.

The DNR examined 27 of the 35 wolves killed by hunters using dogs this past season and didn't find any evidence of fights or other illegal practices. The evaluation was inconclusive, however; the carcasses had already been skinned when the agency examined them.

The researchers also complained that the DNR included data from novice trackers in its 2013-14 monitoring report and barred the public from a May meeting in which data was aggregated and interpreted. The moves make it difficult to compare population estimates from year to year, they said.

The latest DNR estimates put Wisconsin's wolf population at somewhere between 660 to 689 animals, down from 809 to 824 animals in 2012-2013. The agency's board has set the kill limit at 150 wolves for the upcoming season, down from 251 last year.

The group recommended an independent scientific review of the DNR's data. They urged Fish and Wildlife officials to consider placing the wolf back on the endangered species list before the wolf season opens in mid-October to allow time for the review and demand the DNR use a standardized format for its population estimates.

The researchers were led by Adrian Treves, a UW-Madison environmental studies associate professor who studies the interactions between humans and carnivores.

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