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Wolf may vanish from Wisconsin license plates

By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin's wolves are thriving today at the top of the food chain in the North Woods, but the species may be headed for extinction - on state license plates.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board will consider a proposal today to remove the wolf from the state threatened species list. While officials with the Department of Natural Resources say there is no corresponding plan to also take the wolf off Wisconsin's endangered resources license plate, that day likely is coming.

"We are looking at some other options, but the wolf has been very popular - whether it's endangered or not," said Randy Jurewicz, a biologist in the DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources. "There are a lot of people who buy that plate."

The plates cost an initial $15 and also require a $25 annual fee. Jurewicz said they brought in just over $600,000 for species recovery programs in 2003.

Bureau director Signe Holtz said the king of the carnivores won't be removed for at least a year, but talk about possible replacements has started.

"There are people interested in native plants," said Holtz. "For instance, dwarf lake iris is beautiful."

But it may not pack the passion evoked by the wolf - a species cherished by many, but also widely reviled.

April 1 marks the one-year anniversary of the animal's down-listing in Wisconsin from endangered to threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The move marked a milestone in the recovery of a species that had been hunted and trapped into oblivion in Wisconsin by the mid-20th century.

The wolf was among the first protected following passage of the 1973 law, and it didn't take long for the animals to begin roaming over from Minnesota, where they were never extirpated. Today Wisconsin is home to about 350 wolves - about the state's carrying capacity, according to state wildlife experts. "It seems like we're filling up most of the north forest areas," said the DNR's Adrian Wydeven.

Prior to last year's down-listing, it was illegal to kill a wolf except in human life-threatening circumstances. State wildlife officials could only trap and move wolves that developed a taste for livestock or pets.

The move from endangered to threatened opened the door to wolf killing by government officials, though it is still illegal for private citizens to kill a problem animal.

In 2003, 17 animals were killed by government workers, and another 36 wolves were found dead in the state. That figure includes nine that were shot illegally and 14 killed by automobiles. Disease accounted for most of the other deaths.

The down-listing was hailed by livestock operators and others opposed to wolf recovery. But some wolf advocates contend wolves have never been much of a problem for the livestock industry overall, and the relaxed protections have not had much of an effect on livestock operations.

The state's move to take the wolf off its threatened list is considered largely symbolic because it will remain a federal threatened species. But the federal government is also considering taking the wolf off its threatened list.

It can't happen soon enough for people like Lawrence Krak, an outspoken critic of the efforts to restore the wolf to Wisconsin.

"Landowners should be able to dispatch them at will whenever they cross their land," said Krak, president of the group, People Against Wolves. "They are not an endangered species. As far as I'm concerned, we don't need a damn one in this state."

Wydeven doesn't see that day happening anytime soon, even after the wolf is taken off the federal threatened list.
"It will still be a protected species," said Wydeven, adding that protections would be relaxed.