MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has rejected a claim by Wisconsin's Chippewa tribes that they can legally protect all wolves in the northern part of the state from hunting this winter.
The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission argued Wisconsin tribes have treaty rights that allow them to lay claim on all wolves in the ceded territory, a swath of northern Wisconsin the tribes gave to the government more than a century ago. But DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp told the commission the tribes have the right to only half the wolves the department will let hunters kill in the territory.
"We respectfully disagree with the tribal claim to 'all wolves in the Wisconsin ceded territory,'" Stepp said in a letter Wednesday to the commission's leader, Jim Zorn. "We also respectfully disagree that the tribes' reserved rights include the ability to 'claim' a harvestable natural resource, including wolves, to prevent its harvest."
A gray wolf is seen in this file photo. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Indian tribes are at odds over the number of wolves that will be allowed to survive an upcoming hunt. (Journal file photo)
Sue Erickson, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the group planned to discuss Stepp's letter at a meeting on Sept. 6.
"We haven't formulated a response yet," she said.
President Barack Obama's administration removed wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin from the endangered species list in January. Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill in April establishing a hunt after farmers complained bitterly about wolves preying on livestock. The DNR estimates as many as 880 wolves may roam the state, far above the agency's goal of 350.
The hunt is set to begin Oct. 15 and run through the end of February. The DNR will allow hunters to kill 201 wolves statewide and plans to issue 2,010 permits through a lottery system.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the department had received about 11,000 applications.
But the wolf is a sacred animal in Chippewa culture, which teaches that the animal, known as ma'iingan, is a brother to the tribes.
Under treaties signed in the early 1800s, the state's six Chippewa tribes ceded 22,400 square miles across northern Wisconsin to the government.
A federal court ruling in 1991 found the tribes have the right to harvest at least 50 percent of the quota for any animal hunted in that territory.
The DNR's wolf hunt regulations set the quota in the ceded territory at 167 animals; the agency has said the tribe has the right to 85 of them, a little more than half of the quota.
Last week, Zorn sent a letter to Stepp saying a commission task force that deals with hunting rights passed a motion opposing killing any wolves and laying claim to all the wolves in the ceded territory.
"The Tribes' goal is for all suitable wolf habitat to be fully occupied, thus enabling wolves to perform their appropriate ecological and cultural function on the landscape," Zorn wrote.
"The State does not have unfettered discretion to exercise its management prerogatives to the detriment of the Tribes' treaty reserved rights," he wrote. "It proceeds at its own risk if it moves forward with its current harvest scheme, which will drive down the population and diminish the Tribes' right to the presence and function of ma'iingan on the landscape."
Stepp replied that she understands a wolf hunt presents a difficult situation for tribal members, but she contended the treaties give the tribes harvest rights, not preservation rights.
She said the DNR would follow the treaty and reserve 85 wolves for tribal hunting, but anything more would infringe on the state's responsibility to manage the animals.