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Wolves’ Long Journey Home

While the wolf reintroduction debate rages across the country, in Wisconsin the animals are simply reclaiming their rightful place.

Listen.From somewhere to the north, beyond the ring of birch trees where we are camped close to the heart of Rainbow Lake Wilderness, a chorus of howls is rising in the night sky. The voices swirl up into the stars like sparks from our campfire. It is a complex chorus-sharp barks and yips mixed with deep, richer strains-that echoes over the lake. The forest rings with the sound. I close my eyes and smile. I’ve waited most of my life to hear this choir. Yet, this isn’t Yellowstone or Alaska. This is Wisconsin, and out there in the darkness there are wolves, howling.

Once, the sound of wolf howls echoed all across Wisconsin-from the oak prairies of the southwestern part of the state to the deep piney Northwoods. Biologists estimate there were as many as 5,000 wolves in the state in the early 1800s. But that was then. The story from there is all too familiar-tales of wolf packs attacking sleighs hauling loads of beef, of lumberjacks wildly swinging axes to keep wolves at bay, hunters claiming wolves were killing all the deer. Every tale fueled a public outcry to rid the state of “these white-teethed howlers.”

And it worked. Like a dark shadow creeping over the state from south to north, the anti-wolf forces took their toll. Bounties, paid out as early as 1839, helped rid the southwest of wolves by the early 1880s and central Wisconsin by 1914. In the 1920s, there were only about 200 left, mostly in the north. The last wolf bounty was paid in 1956, and the program halted a year later, not out of any growing love for the animal but because it was thought there were too few left to warrant the paperwork.

The last documented Wisconsin wolf was hit by a car, then bludgeoned to death with a tire iron, in January 1958. The wolf was officially gone. The woods were silenced.

Fifteen years later, the rumors started, based on quick, shadowy glimpses by hikers, loggers, and hunters. Finally, in 1975, a decade and a half after they were officially proclaimed vanquished in the state, wolves were once again confirmed in Wisconsin.

It was nothing fancy. In Yellowstone, bringing back wolves required a multimillion dollar relocation project, complete with helicopters whisking whole wolf packs out of Canada. In the Southwest, captive Mexican Gray wolves were released amid speeches and in the presence of the Secretary of the Interior.

In Wisconsin, the wolves simply walked back. With the number of wolves in Minnesota growing under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, dispersing wolves began ranging farther and farther afield, searching for unclaimed territory. Drifting as silently as mist, they moved east, under cover of the deep woods. Sometime in the mid-1970s, they entered Wisconsin. Here they found wilderness, deer, and no other wolves to challenge them. They began to settle in.

“It was pretty shaky in the beginning,” says Adrian Wydeven, who heads the wolf program for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Wolf numbers stayed low-as few as 15 animals in the mid-1980s.” They suffered from mange, canine parvovirus, and parasites. Cars hit some, others were shot by people still harboring vestiges of hate.

But the wolves kept coming.

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