As if wolf hunting wasn’t controversial enough, Wisconsin super-charged the debate in 2012 when establishing a late-season wolf hunt that allows the use of trailing hounds in areas that haven’t reached their prescribed harvest quota.

In fact, the move generated a lawsuit in summer 2012 that prevented hound hunting that year while a state court reviewed the law. Ultimately, the judge declared the hound-hunting season lawful, and Wisconsin held the nation’s first such hunt in December 2013. The final tally showed 35 of the 257 wolves (14 percent) killed during Wisconsin’s 2013 season were taken with help from hounds.

Not surprisingly, the actual hound hunt didn’t unleash the monstrous, blood-soaked, animal-fighting atrocities so many critics predicted. In fact, not one hound died during the short 2013 hound-hunting season, which opened Dec. 2 and closed Dec. 23.

Wisconsin’s hunting/trapping season on wolves opens Oct. 15 each year. Trappers, especially, have enjoyed rapid success in reaching the harvest quotas in most of the state’s six wolf-season zones. Therefore, the lone area remaining open in December 2013 was Wolf Zone 3 — a forested region in northwestern Wisconsin that’s shaped like an upside-down sickle.

Zone 3 was 37 short of its 71-wolf quota when the state’s firearms deer season ended Dec. 1. The hound-hunt started slowly after opening Dec. 2, with houndsmen killing eight wolves between then and Dec. 14, a 0.6 daily average. But from Dec. 15 through the Dec. 23 closure, they killed 27 wolves, averaging three daily. The big hound-hunting days were Dec. 15 and 20, five wolves per day; Dec. 21, six wolves; and Dec. 23, four wolves.

Fresh tracking snow on Dec. 14, 2013, made the difference. Houndsmen typically drive backwoods roads and trails until crossing a lone wolf track in the snow. Then they usually turn loose a hound or two to trail the wolf and post the licensed hunter in openings the wolf might cross. If the wolf doesn’t pass through, they wait until the hound bays it. The houndsmen then hustle to the site, size up the wolf, and decide whether to shoot it or pull their hound and continue the hunt for something bigger.

Ensuring A Safe Hunt

One of those hunters is Dave Mabie, a longtime houndsman from Kennan, Wisconsin. Mabie is also a delegate to the state’s Conservation Congress — an elected body of 360 citizens who advise the Department of Natural Resources on hunting, fishing and trapping matters.

Mabie encountered wolves regularly while using his hounds to hunt bobcats, coyotes and black bears the past 10 years — as allowed by state law. He has owned and trained hounds for more than 30 years and never doubted that hounds could be used safely to hunt wolves in late fall to early winter.

That’s because most wolf-killed hounds die during July and August while training for bear season. During summer, wolves aggressively defend their pack’s rendezvous sites, probably because their pups are still young and vulnerable. In contrast, few hounds get killed during bear season itself in September and October, as wolves become less aggressive and territorial.

Mabie said the key to avoiding fights between wolves and hounds is to target lone wolves and trail them with one hound. A wolf pack won’t be intimidated by a lone hound, and one hound won’t be unduly brave without support from other hounds.

“There’s not all this blood and fur flying around the woods like people have been led to believe,” Mabie said. “Putting one hound on a track is no problem. The dog runs that wolf and barks at it until the wolf sits down. Then the dog runs circles around it, barking. If it were a bird dog with a beeper collar, the beeper would go off and you’d move in to flush the bird. The hound basically goes to point on the wolf.”

Even so, hound-hunting opponents continually insist that hounding is barbaric. They recently asked the Wisconsin DNR to require hound-hunters to skin their kills in front of a conservation warden so wolf hides can be inspected for bite marks. The idea sparked skepticism. Wardens and hunters say it would be difficult to coordinate the inspections and likely wouldn’t prove a fight occurred. After all, dogs often bite their prey after it’s shot, whether it’s a hound biting a bear or a beagle biting a rabbit.

Boiling Dispute

The issue of using hounds to hunt wolves in Wisconsin has sparked claims and arguments since it was first proposed in January 2012. Most people forget that Wisconsin has a long history of hound-hunting for bears, bobcats, raccoons and coyotes. As the state’s wolf population boomed in the late 1990s and 2000s and hounds encountered wolves more often, houndsmen proposed creating the additional hunting opportunity.

Once Wisconsin did so, opponents continually noted that it’s the only state to allow hound-hunting for wolves. True, but is that a valid criticism? Wolf hunting itself is relatively rare in the United States. Only three states besides Wisconsin held a wolf season in 2014: Idaho, Montana and Minnesota. Michigan and Wyoming held seasons in 2013, but not in 2014.

Further, how would we learn if hound hunting works for wolves if no state offers the opportunity? Without Wisconsin’s one-zone hunts in December 2013 — and probably December 2014 — we’d have only guesswork and uninformed predictions.

But even facts don’t slow doomsayers in the emotion-packed world of wolves. They often make broad assumptions based on innuendo and hearsay. As one opponent wrote in 2014:

“Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that allows the use of free-ranging dogs equipped with radio collars to chase down wolves and kill them… We want Wisconsinites to know what will happen when packs of dogs are unleashed on wolves. It is not a fair fight. There is no way for wolves to defend themselves before the hounds’ owners catch up to the pack (before they) tear the wolf apart.”

More objective folks withheld judgment, however, including Professor David Mech of Minnesota. Mech is a world-renowned wolf biologist who believes state wildlife agencies have been conservative since regaining wolf-management responsibilities from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011. In May 2013 he said: “I don’t think (hound-hunting is) as clear-cut as some people make it. It seems to me that if the hunters know what they’re doing and have well-trained dogs, they could succeed in getting individual wolves with dogs. These dogs are usually well-trained and very expensive. I presume the people who would use dogs to hunt wolves would not want them killed. They’d likely train them right and choose dogs with the right temperament for the job, so the chances of losing their dogs to a wolf are minimal.”