By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Wisconsin, the only state with a program that compensates the owners of dogs killed by wolves while hunting other animals, has paid tens of thousands of dollars during the past decade to individuals who have violated state hunting or firearms laws.
Seven individuals received a total of $19,000 in payments after they were convicted of crimes or paid forfeitures for hunting or firearms-related offenses, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. An additional $20,000 went to four claimants who were subsequently fined for such offenses, including bear hunting without a license.
In one case, the state Department of Natural Resources paid $2,500 to a man for a dog death that happened while he was prohibited from having a hunting license, due to a prior criminal conviction. The DNR, in response to the Center’s inquiries, is investigating. But even if the claimant was breaking the law at the time, which he denies, he will get to keep the money.
“Having a license is not an eligibility requirement for reimbursement of dogs killed by wolves,” said Tim Andryk, the DNR’s chief legal counsel.
The DNR program also has approved more than $80,000 in payments to repeat claimants — those who put dogs in successive situations where they were killed by wolves. And money has gone to people from other states who brought their dogs here to hunt.
No other state compensates owners for hunting dogs killed by wolves, DNR staff confirm. The purpose of the program is to mitigate damage caused by an expanding state wolf population.
In all, during the decade under review, 2004-2013, the DNR’s wolf depredation program has approved nearly $390,000 in payments for lost hunting dogs. The deaths typically occur when hounds with electronic tracking collars are released to hunt or pursue other animals, especially bears.
Some compensated depredations occurred in areas that the DNR has flagged as being at high risk for wolf attacks.
Most of the hunting dog owners compensated for fatal wolf attacks do not have a history of violating hunting or firearms laws, and those who do are not precluded from getting payments.
“There is nothing in the legislation or state statute that would exempt someone with a criminal or hunting violation from getting compensation,” said DNR wildlife damage specialist Brad Koele, who oversees the program.
The DNR’s payments to the owners of hunting dogs killed by wolves has long been controversial.
Patricia McConnell, a University of Wisconsin-Madison zoologist and expert on dog behavior, has criticized the program for rewarding people who deliberately “choose to put their dogs at extreme risk.”
Of the 32 states that allow bear hunting, 14 ban the use of dogs, according to the Humane Society of the United States, a nonprofit animal welfare group.
Hunters frequently place the value of their lost hounds at well above the state’s maximum reimbursement rate of $2,500.
“They’re like our kids to us,” said Amy Visger, a board member of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters’ Association, in a 2010 Wisconsin Public Television news segment. “We really don’t want anything to happen to them.”
Visger is among the owners of the 23 hunting dogs killed in 2013 who are seeking compensation. She did not respond to an interview request.
Elizabeth Huntley of Wisconsin Wolf Defenders, a pro-wolf advocacy group, agreed that some hunting dogs are worth “upwards of $5,000,” depending on how much training they receive. But she believes some hunters consider their dogs expendable, and are willing to put them in harm’s way — especially if the state will compensate them for any loss.
To minimize depredations, the DNR maintains a website and sends out email alerts regarding areas in which wolves, who are highly territorial, have killed dogs. But some hunters with dogs are not avoiding these areas.
For instance, the site lists a dozen attacks since 2009 by the Flag River wolf pack within a small area in Bayfield County. Four dogs were killed there in 2013, despite the warnings.
A study released last April by researchers in Michigan found significantly higher rates of wolf attacks on dogs in Wisconsin than Michigan, which does not compensate owners for wolf attacks. Besides being a reporting inducement, it said, “compensation also creates an incentive for riskier behavior.”
Dogs die hunting bears
Since its wolf depredation program began in 1985, the DNR has paid out $1.6 million in compensation for attacks on livestock and other animals. Nearly a third of this sum has gone to the owners of hunting dogs.
According to the DNR’s Koele, the USDA’s wildlife services office has verified claims for all 23 lost hounds in 2013. The claimants have asked for up to $10,000 per animal, but the program’s established maximum is $2,500 — unless there are additional veterinary costs.
Most of the claimants for 2013 are set to get $2,500. The claims add up to $56,000, higher than any other year. The payments will be processed in mid-January, Koele said.
For many years, funding for these payments came from sources including the state’s Endangered Resources Fund, from people who bought endangered species license plates or made contributions via their tax return.
Since 2012, these payments have come from the state’s wolf-hunt application and license fees. That means these fees have not been available for other costs associated with the wolf hunt.
State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, opposes the use of these funds to compensate the owners of hunting dogs: “I don’t feel that the money the DNR gets should pick up the tab for what is discretionary by hunters.”
In December, Wisconsin began letting dogs be used to hunt wolves. The owners of dogs who are killed or injured in this activity are not eligible for compensation.
The state also does not issue compensation for hunting dogs killed by bears. In a chapter written for a new book, DNR wolf expert Adrian Wydeven said these losses are “possibly much higher” than those caused by wolves. But the deaths caused by wolves are “usually more gruesome because, unlike omnivorous black bears, wolves often eat the hounds and disarticulate the bodies.”
One USDA report on a Wisconsin kill, from 2008, said the dead hound was “mostly consumed, with the head, rib cage and hind legs mostly stripped of flesh and many small pieces of hide and bits of clotted blood hanging from the surrounding vegetation.”
The hound owner in this case, Paul Hauge, a dentist in Polk County, was paid $2,500. In 2011, he lost another hound to a wolf attack, and filed another claim.
The day after he did so, Hauge was charged with “assist with bear hunting without license,” a noncriminal offense, for which he was fined $263. The second claim was also approved. Hauge, who did not respond to an interview request, received another $2,500.