September 19, 2023 at 5:45 a.m.

Felzkowski, Swearingen raise concerns about proposed wolf management plan

Lawmakers: Buffer zones around tribal lands will impact private landowners

Investigative Reporter

Two Northwoods lawmakers, state Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) and Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), are expressing concerns about the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) revised wolf management plan, especially the addition of circular buffer zones around tribal lands that call for reduced wolf harvests within them.

The revised plan heads to the state Natural Resources Board (NRB) on October 25.

The draft has already sparked controversy by abandoning numeric goals for managing the wolf population. The proposed buffer zones have raised other issues about property rights, not to mention the specter of increased conflicts between landowners and tribal authorities, because a lot of private property sits inside the buffer zones.

According to the DNR, two new subzones are designed to decrease the likelihood of harvesting wolves from “reservation wolf packs” whose territories extend beyond reservation borders by limiting the total amount of public wolf harvest that may potentially occur in those areas. These zones would includes lands adjacent to the Bad River, Red Cliff, Lac Courte Oreilles and Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservations. 

“Their use would be intended to respect tribal interests in these areas while also continuing to allow reasonable public wolf harvest opportunities,” the draft plan states. “Together, these subzones are intended help balance competing social and biological factors unique to these areas and ultimately increase the department’s ability to effectively manage the wolf population.”

In a September 11 letter to DNR regulation policy specialist Scott Karel, Swearingen and Felzkowski said they were especially concerned about how regulatory changes would pertain to wolf harvesting zones on or near tribal lands. 

“It is imperative that both the ecological balance of our state, and the respect for property owner’s rights be carefully considered and reevaluated,” Felzkowski and Swearingen wrote. 

The lawmakers said the zoning system around tribal lands would impinge on private property.

“The zoning system, which uses circular areas around tribal lands rather than aligning with their actual borders, inadvertently extends its influence into the surrounding private properties,” they wrote.

That approach, the lawmakers assert, would create ambiguities for landowners and increase the likelihood of various disputes and tensions.

“Private landowners might find it challenging to ascertain which regulations apply to their properties due to the circular zoning system,” they wrote. “This could lead to inadvertent violations or misunderstandings. … The potential for overlapping zones could lead to disputes between private landowners and tribal authorities. Such an arrangement could strain relationships and result in unnecessary conflicts.”

What’s more, the lawmakers wrote, the introduction of the concept of “reservation wolf” would indirectly impact private landowners, creating mismanagement risks and regulatory confusion. 

“The arbitrary division based on territorial habits could lead to imbalances in wolf populations, leading to increased wolf presence on private lands, further affecting livestock or local fauna,” they wrote. “The distinction between wolves based on their territorial habits might create confusion for private landowners about how to handle these animals, leading to potential legal and management challenges.”

Felzkowski and Swearingen said it was crucial to ensure that private landowners are adequately consulted and informed about any regulatory changes. 

“Their firsthand experience and feedback can provide invaluable insights and help in refining regulations that are pragmatic and well-informed,” they wrote. “In conclusion, while the aim might be to establish a balance between wildlife conservation and tribal rights, it’s crucial not to overlook the legitimate concerns of private landowners. They, too, play a significant role in our state’s ecology and have rights that deserve equal consideration.”

The lawmakers urged the NRB to revisit the regulations in close consultation with private landowners, ensuring what they called “an all-inclusive and well-rounded approach to wolf management.”

Others have also opposed the buffer zone concept, saying it effectively cedes wildlife management authority over non-tribal lands to the tribes and takes away private property rights. Hunter Nation has opposed the concept on those grounds, saying it would negatively impact stakeholders’ property and due process rights.

Population goal

In their letter, Felzkowski and Swearingen also encouraged the DNR to reevaluate its stance on a noncommittal statewide population goal. 

“This is a concern that affects property owners throughout the state, as expressed through the resolutions passed in 36 of the 72 counties in Wisconsin,” they wrote.

Rather than aiming for a statewide population goal, under the revised adaptive plan the DNR would monitor local populations within six wolf hunting zones and make decisions for those zones about the need to reduce the population.

“The plan recommends engaging the department’s Wolf Advisory Committee in the process to annually assist the department in reviewing data, metrics and trends related to existing conditions on the ground in each wolf management zone,” the plan states. “It is recommended to evaluate conditions in each zone against plan objectives based upon the information contained in the plan. The department’s Wolf Advisory Committee can serve to help evaluate progress toward plan objectives, provide valuable input from a variety of perspectives and deliver preliminary recommendations to department decision-makers when requested.”

The state’s wolf management plan hasn’t been updated since 2007. The DNR says its intention is to create a plan and policy framework in anticipation of a federal block on wolf harvests being lifted.

The DNR says this plan differs from the past because, rather than being largely focused on wolf recovery, the new plan recognizes the biologically recovered status of gray wolves in Wisconsin.

“Accordingly, this plan turns attention from wolf recovery to long-term stewardship and sustainable management of the state’s wolf population,” the plan states. “The goal of the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan is to ensure a healthy and sustainable wolf population that fulfills the numerous ecological, cultural and recreational benefits of wolves, while being responsive in addressing and preventing wolf-related conflicts; and recognizing the diverse values and perspectives of all citizens in Wisconsin.”

Richard Moore is the author of “Dark State” and may be reached at


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