GREENDALE, Wis. — When people like Nancy Jo Dowler started raising wolves here decades ago, the animals were rare in Wisconsin and nearly extinct across the country.
Now the president of the Timber Wolf Preservation Society, Dowler, 66, cares for five full-grown purebreds. She bottle-fed them as pups and howls with them at passing sirens.
The other day she gave one breath mints through a hole in the fence, passing it directly from her lips to his.
Hers seems a fairy-tale world compared with the legal dogfights occurring beyond these kennels. Out there, Wisconsin is three weeks into its first wolf-hunting season, sanctioned by the state legislature in April. Minnesota begin its first registered wolf hunt recently.
The legalization of wolf hunting in both states was devised to manage a rebounding wolf population after the federal government stopped listing the species as endangered in the region last year. Both have drawn lawsuits from local and national animal rights groups that fear the undoing of nearly four decades of work to restore a healthy number of wolves.
“We’ve spent a lot as a nation to protect them," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, which in October announced a lawsuit against the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to restore protections for wolves.
“These plans in Wisconsin and Minnesota are draconian, severe and unwarranted, and we think they may jeopardize the health and viability of this population."
Since the wolf hunt began last month, at least 42 have been killed in Wisconsin. All told, officials expect 600 wolves will die at the hands of hunters and trappers in the two states before spring.
Wolves were once so numerous in the United States that ranchers and government agencies paid people to kill them. By the time the Endangered Species Act began protecting wolves in 1973, they were nearing extinction in the lower 48 states.
Today, wolf numbers have grown to 4,000 and exceeded recovery goals in the western Great Lakes area, according to federal estimates.
But some of those packs have started to cause problems again for ranchers in northern Wisconsin and have cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in livestock reimbursement payments, said officials at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“Without controls, what we’ve seen in the state is a feeling of needing to take it into their own hands for folks that are frustrated," said Kurt Thiede, head of the wildlife management program for the agency.
After the Wisconsin Legislature approved the wolf hunt, which ends Feb. 28, more than 20,000 people applied for the required license. The state awarded 1,160 permits and capped this year’s harvest at 201 kills, or roughly a quarter of its current wolf population.
In Minnesota, about 3,600 licenses were available to hunt up to 400 wolves, which would reduce the state’s numbers by about 15 percent.
“There ain’t too many people that have one hanging in their living room," said Timothy Mueller, a hunter from Silver Cliff, Wis . He, like others with a wolf license, was waiting for winter because pelts will be thicker and the snow will make it easier to track the animals.
Yet some hunters who once proudly talked about the rare opportunity would now rather keep their adventures private. A number declined to speak about the controversy because of reported threats made against a hunter who was among the first to register his kill with the state.
“There are a lot of the claims about how easy this is and how this is senseless slaughter," said Scott Meyer, a lobbyist for the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin. “When you see the terrain and the geographies of everything, you understand that the advantage is toward the wolf."
Animal rights groups have little sympathy for the hunters. They argue that the state kill quotas do not properly account for other ways that wolves can die, like poaching and vehicular collisions and the killing of the animals by farmers and ranchers protecting their livestock. Those additional causes, they say, could put the animals at risk again.
On Oct. 15, the day Wisconsin’s wolf-hunting season began, two national groups — the Humane Society and the Fund for Animals — filed a 60-day notice of their intent to sue the federal government to restore wolf protections.
In addition, Wisconsin humane groups have filed a lawsuit to prohibit the use of dogs for hunting wolves, calling it cruel. Minnesota advocates also took legal action against their state in an attempt to stop its hunt, which lasts from Nov. 3 to Jan. 31. And Minnesota’s Chippewa tribes have banned wolf hunting and trapping on reservation lands.
“The whole balance of nature, they don’t want to hear any of that," said Dowler, criticizing hunters for killing the animals she has devoted years to protect. “People absolutely love them or they absolutely hate them. There are few people in the middle."