MADISON, Wis. For years, vacationers and farmers across northern Wisconsin and Minnesota have heard the eerie howl of the gray wolf and fretted the creatures were lurking around their cabins and pastures, eying up Fido or Bessie. The tables are about to turn: Both states plan to launch their first organized wolf hunts in the coming weeks.
The hunts won't be anything on the scale of the two states' beloved whitetail deer hunts, when hundreds of thousands of hunters rearrange work and school schedules and fan out across the woods. Both states have limited the number of wolves hunters can kill and capped the number of permits, creating an exclusive club of hunters who will get what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take on the wiliest of predators.
Anticipation has reached a fever pitch, but most hunters will come face-to-face with a sobering fact within a few hours of venturing into the woods -- wolves aren't deer or ducks. They're intelligent, mobile creatures with an unmatched sense of smell. The states could be hard-pressed to meet their kill goals.
"Everybody's gung-ho to go kill a wolf but nobody realizes how hard it's going to be," said Bud Martin, a Montana-based hunting guide who shot a wolf two years ago in Idaho. "I'll bet you a steak dinner your quota won't be met."
Wolf hunting isn't unheard of in the United States. Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming allow it. Federal officials removed Great Lakes wolves from the endangered species list in January. That spurred Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin lawmakers to draft bills establishing hunts, too, pushing aside animal advocates' concerns that the wolf populations remain too fragile to sustain hunting.
Farmers in all three states have long complained about wolves wreaking havoc on their livestock. Wildlife officials estimate there are now 700 wolves in Michigan and 850 in Wisconsin. About 3,000 roam Minnesota, the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states.
Michigan's hunt legislation still is pending but Wisconsin's season is set to open Oct. 15. Minnesota's season is on track to begin Nov. 3. Hunt opponents have asked an appeals court to halt the proceedings but it's unclear when the court might rule.
"It's going to happen," said Nancy Warren, Great Lakes regional director for the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, which maintains the Wisconsin and Minnesota legislation was rushed and wasn't based on sound science. "All we can do is try to change the law and see what happens this year and take it from there."
Both states will allow hunters to bait, shoot and trap wolves. Wisconsin also will allow night hunting and the use of dogs. Wildlife officials have kept the hunts small, though, as they feel their way along; Wisconsin set its quota at 116 animals and awarded only 1,160 permits through a lottery. Minnesota set its limit at 400 animals and awarded 6,000 permits.
Joe Caputo, 50, of Spring Green, Wis., won a permit in his state. A life-long deer hunter, he's boning up on wolves, preparing to drop more than $3,000 on two dozen new wolf traps and seeking out northern Wisconsin landowners who have suffered wolf depredation.
"This is the ultimate challenge," Caputo said. "You're talking the largest-scale predator on the landscape."
Beverly Kiger, a Grand Rapids, Minn.-based trophy hunter who has bagged a wildebeest and an impala in South Africa, bought her wolf permit the same day she discovered she'd won one. She wants to add a full-size wolf mount to her collection. She plans to start scouting for wolf signs, perhaps around her cabin in far northeastern Minnesota.
"To get a (wolf) as a trophy would be awesome," she said.
Mark Dahms, 54, of Waukesha, Wis., entered that state's lottery with three friends. He was the only one who won a permit. He's taking off time from his job as an electrician and plans on employing a newly purchased electronic call that can produce 400 sounds mimicking wolves and distressed animals.