Wisconsin's annual wolf hunt begins Wednesday, but hunters won't be the only ones venturing into Wisconsin's northern forests.
A group of environmental and animal rights activists are protesting the wolf hunt by trailing hunters and investigating potentially illegal kills. Their aim is to spotlight the cruel practices involved in grey wolf hunting, which indigenous groups in the Great Lakes region oppose, and the failure of government agencies to adequately manage wildlife populations.
Among the protesters is 48-year old Rod Coronado, formerly of the Animal Liberation Front, who spent nearly five years in federal prison for his animal rights activities, including an arson attack on a Michigan State University facility that hosted animal experiments. He recently completed a five-year probation period that prevented him from being involved in environmental or animal rights issues.
Now he's back protecting wildlife, he says.
"The wolves of Wisconsin will not be facing hunters and trappers alone," Coronado said ahead of the hunting season. "Wolves and humans share a sacred relationship in the Great Lakes area."
The canis lupus, or grey wolf, was stripped in 2011 of US Endangered Species Act protections. The next year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) legalized wolf hunting and trapping and, after much controversy, the use of dogs for hunting.
For 49 dollars, Wisconsinites as young as 10-years old can purchase a wolf hunting license. The season ends February 28 or once hunters have logged 150 kills — whichever comes first.
Wisconsin trappers commonly use steel jaw traps, devices outlawed in 100 countries because they often catch and kill non-predator animals that are not a hunter's primary prey.
Wolves have a powerful effect on the well-being of the ecosystems around them.
Wisconsin is the only state to authorize the use of dogs to hunt wolves, allowing a pack of up to six dogs per hunter. WDNR compensates owners for lost hunting dogs, a stipulation that's dented its budget by nearly $390,000 between 2004-2013, according to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting.
Hunting and trapping wolves, like other wildlife, is historically a sporting and population control practice. An estimated 5,000 wolves roamed Wisconsin in the 1800s, but after decades of open hunting, they were brought under Endangered Species Act protections in 1974. Populations recovered in the 1970s and by late 2013, Wisconsin had an estimated population of 815 to 880 wolves in 213 packs, a level that, according to WDNR, needed to be culled to its "biologically and socially acceptable level."
In response to the federal government's delisting of the grey wolf, Coronado and other animal rights activists founded the Wolf Patrol. Over the coming months, they plan to spotlight wolf hunts across the country in an attempt to show that wolf populations have not yet recovered and should remain under federal protection.
The opening of Wisconsin's wolf hunt — and the Wolf Patrol's opposition to it — brings into sharp focus the nation-wide debate over apex predator populations. Apex predators, animals with no natural predator, have a storied past of harming modern agricultural systems, like cattle and sheep ranching, which provides public officials with the rational to allow hunting.
Due to strict nationwide laws protecting hunters from harassment, the Wolf Patrol plans to avoid direct confrontation with their adversaries, whether in Wisconsin or other states where they plan to monitor grey wolf hunting this year.
"We know the law, and although we are working to end the wolf hunt, we are not trying to interfere with legal wolf hunting," said Matt Almonte, a Wolf Patrol member. "We simply are monitoring WDNR-endorsed wolf control activities on public lands with the intent of sharing that information with the public."
Despite its pledge of non-interference and compliance with the law, the Wolf Patrol has received several threats on its Facebook page, ranging from aggressive, lengthy trolling to being shot if they "get in the way."
In his next dispatch for VICE News_, Chumbley will explore the complexities of state and federal wildlife management policies and reveal what happens when Coronado and the Wolf Patrol follow hunters and trappers into Wisconsin's northern wilderness. _
_Follow Spencer Chumbley on Twitter: _@spencerchumbley
_Follow Joanna Piacenza on Twitter: _@jpiacenza