With less than a day’s notice, I received word that Senator Ron Johnson would be holding a town hall meeting in rural Northwestern Wisconsin on August 16th at 7:00 pm to hear from constituents about issues surrounding the presence of grey wolves in the Great Lakes region.
Next thing I knew, I was in the passenger seat of a fellow wolf advocate’s hybrid en route to the Agricultural Research Center in Spooner, Wisconsin, scrambling to prepare being faced with what I feared would be the worst — a room full of furious wolf-haters.
The parking lot was jam packed with vehicles, many hounding trucks, some filled with baying dogs. I entered the back door of a large meeting room where the dewy stench of body odor and chewing tobacco suddenly overwhelmed my gag-reflex. A couple of young girls shuffled in front of us adorning matching brown t-shirts with blaze orange writing:
My colleague Michelle and I signed our names down and shuffled through a sea of cutoffs and camouflage to find two empty seats in the front row near an emergency exit; a swift and accessible escape route I would later come to realize.
As suspected, Ron Johnson was not present but in his place he sent the following staffers to run the meeting:
- Tom Petri, Wisconsin Legislative Director for Senator Ron Johnson (Madison)
- Scott Bolstad, Regional Director for Senator Ron Johnson (Eau Claire)
- David McFarland, Wildlife Biologist for the Wisconsin DNR
First, Dave McFarland gave a brief overview of the “strong and expanding” overwinter wolf count that the DNR has currently estimated to fall somewhere between 925-952 wolves. The state-funded damage control program has seen a 50% drop in depredations, which McFarland claims can be attributed to both lethal and non-lethal methods of management.
According to DNR statistics, the 2016 bear hound training season saw a dramatic increase in dog-wolf conflicts, with a total of 41 dogs killed. So far into 2017, McFarland ensured that dog-wolf conflict rates are currently 50% lower than last year, however he did not provide further analysis as to why the DNR believes we are seeing a considerably lower depredation rate this year.
It was at this point that I raised my hand to ask the question: since lethal control is not an option due to wolves’ endangered status, what is the DNR doing to employ the use of non-lethal management methods?
His response went over the primary use of traditional fladry, electric “turbo” fladry, radio transmitter collars which trigger guard lights and sirens, improved fencing, guard animals, cattle rotation, and how each scenario is situation specific. While the DNR believes non-lethal management “can be a tool, but not the answer” he also stated that while non-lethal management practices are not 100% effective, neither is lethal control.
McFarland also reaffirmed the state of Wisconsin’s standing that the wolf population has recovered, despite a recent decision from the US Court of Appeals which ruled that gray wolves in the Great Lakes region have not yet recovered and should remain on the federal Endangered Species List.
Following a brief Q+A session with McFarland, Petri transitioned the discussion over to the federal delisting legislation (S. 1514) sponsored by Senator Ron Johnson. In summary, the takeaway message was solely directed to those in favor of passing the bill:
- Certain aspects of the political landscape have recently changed, allowing this bill to advance.
- The bill is one page in length with two major components:
- Requirement for the USFWS to remove Great Lakes wolves off the endangered species list. If states determine the wolf population has dipped too low, they have authority to return wolves back to an endangered status.
- Most importantly, this decision cannot be subject to judicial review and would “lock it into statute”.
- The big difference is that this bill is co-sponsored by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) making the legislation “bi-partisan”.
- S. 1514 has been added to a much larger bill sponsored by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) called the Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation for Wildlife Act, or HELP for Wildlife Act, and is said to be the most controversial portion of the entire bill.
- Their best strategy to getting this bill passed is to push for keeping S. 1514 included in the HELP for Wildlife Act.
- They need 60/100 votes to break filibuster and they already have 57 confirmed but still need 3-5 additional democrats to commit.
- The democratic targets mentioned were Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Al Franken (D-MN).
- Petri could not get an update from Senator Barrasso on what he has heard from Senator Mitch McConnell about the amount of floor time we might see for this portion of the bill, but it could be as soon as September.
- The long term goal is to have a companion bill introduced to the House and passed in late 2017 or early 2018.
It was at this point where Petri announced that Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake) had arrived and was given the floor for a brief, two-minute pep rally:
Everyone get out a pen and paper and WRITE THIS NUMBER DOWN: 202-224-5653. Tammy Baldwin is the key to this bill. Call every day. Talk to your friends, your cousins, your mom, your kids, whoever it takes, and get them on the phone. Baldwin is up for re-election this year and she can recruit other democrats needed to get this bill passed. Call ten times a day! Write letters to the editor that start with, “Dear Senator Baldwin”! Get everyone you know to do the same! Let’s get this shit done!!!
THAT IS YOUR JOB. IF YOU DO THAT, WE WILL WIN.
Followed by a roaring round of screaming and applause, Petri calmed the crowd and opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to make a comment, using the sign-in sheet to call off each name. Some declined to speak, while others stood up and ranted about wolves killing one of their calves 8 years ago. The “kids being stalked at the bus stop” was the usual go-to story. It is difficult to fathom how so many of these people believe wolves might actually kill one of their friends, family or children playing in the backyard. One hounder had lost a bear hound as recently as last week, and felt wolves had no place being here. Others questioned the accuracy of the DNR’s wolf count, claiming the number is skewed and that “everyone up here knows we have twice as many”.
For every person who claimed they don’t want to see wolves eliminated completely, there were twice as many exclaiming “the only good wolf is a dead wolf”! These are the voices dictating our wildlife management here in Wisconsin.
When my colleague Michelle made her statement, she talked about how congress let farmers down by not passing the legislation to put wolves under a “threatened” status, which would have permitted farmers to kill problem wolves if necessary. This would have been a compromise between both sides, which seems like a dirty word in politics these days. Michelle also voiced her concern with the part of Johnson’s bill that seeks to block judicial review, an essential part of any modern democratic society and our constitutional right to keeping checks and balances within the system.
Petri responded that the reason for judicial review portion was to prevent conservation groups from coming back and appealing the law, since they had already been successful in having delisting reversed that way. YEP — he point blank said it.
Next up was my turn to speak, and suddenly I found myself standing in front of a room filled with a hundred-some angry people who hated my guts. I spoke about the need for science to play a larger role in policy decision-making regarding the grey wolf and other endangered species protections in Wisconsin. It isn’t balanced to have vocal and powerful hunting, trapping and livestock groups be the only forces influencing wolf management decisions at the table. Lethal control will only relieve conflict temporarily. Eventually, new wolves will move into the vacated territory and the cycle of loss will continue or even be enhanced.
I talked about the fact that according to the DNR’s own website, over 95% of dogs killed by wolves are hunting hounds, yet hounders don’t want to take any responsibility for the fact that they are thrusting these “family member” packs of dogs into the woods during the time of year that wolves are rearing their pups. When these packs of hounds meet up with wolves protecting their young, does it come as a surprise that there is death and maiming on both sides?
Rather than managing an important and necessary apex predator in our natural landscape to protect their dogs, perhaps we should instead bring an end to the barbaric and unnecessary blood sport of hound hunting.
It was at this point that I was blatantly cut off from speaking any further. But not before I could make one final point that for the record: there has never been a confirmed case in Wisconsin where a human has been killed by a wolf. The crowd griped and groaned. When I asked DNR Wildlife Biologist Dave McFarland to confirm that fact, he remain seated and quietly responded, “no there has not”. And just because I didn’t think everyone could hear him quite clearly enough, I asked him to speak up and repeat his response once more, for good measure.
As I sat down to pack my things, I heard someone yell from the back that I am “free to take the wolves back down to Madison where I came from” despite the fact that I introduced myself as a lifelong northern Wisconsin resident.
And with that, I had never been more thankful for an emergency exit in my life.
Five steps into the dimly lit parking lot, I realized we were being followed out by someone calling out for us to wait a moment. Terrified, I said no thank you and was about to lock myself in Michelle’s car until the man approaching assured us that he was a reporter from the Washburn County Register. He was trying to figure out how people found out about the meeting and asked if we had received any type of invitation.
According to Petri, anyone who had contacted Ron Johnson to express concerns about this issue was sent an email with details about the town hall meeting. All I could tell the reporter was that I contact Ron Johnson on a weekly basis about this very issue and never received a damn thing.
This was no “town hall” meeting. It was kept on the down-low until word finally made the rounds to a few of our contacts a day beforehand. When one advocate from our organization called Ron Johnson’s office about it, she was told by a staffer that the meeting had been requested by a “wolf advocacy group”. But I can assure, this meeting was nothing more than a rally for supporters of Ron Johnson’s sponsored bill (S. 1514) and a coaching session on what hounding and livestock groups need to do to get his bill passed. The deck had been stacked behind the scenes – a total setup.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Whether or not I was prepared to be, I found myself behind enemy lines on Wednesday night. And right now, the other side is organizing and activating. Ron Johnson’s staffers were sent to push S. 1514 and basically spell out their strategy to get it passed. They broke it down as clear as possible that everyone in that room needs to bombard Baldwin to get on the phone and recruit the 3-5 more democrats that they still need to move forward with delisting. They even went so far as to list the democratic senators that they are targeting to go after.
WE NEED TO COUNTERACT, OR WE LOSE.
So our counteract campaign starts NOW, because we only have until September to stop this bill from making its way to the president’s desk. Call Tammy Baldwin every single day and urge her to consider the consequences of her decision to co-sponsor this bill. She is up for an re-election this year and cannot afford to lose democratic supporters.
Then, call the democrats they are recruiting to support this bill. Contact them today. Contact them again tomorrow, and every single day until this bill hits the floor:
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI): 202-224-5653
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN): 202-224-5641
Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI): 202-224-6221
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI): 202-224-4822
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI): 202-224-5323
Speak from the heart, or use this sample template to express your concerns:
Hello, my name is __________ and I am from _________. I am calling to urge Senator _______ to oppose the Help for Wildlife Act bill (S. 1514). The riders in this bill would effectively put our nation’s most threatened wildlife back in the hands of politicians rather than scientists. If the bill passes, state plans are already set in place to re-open trophy hunting seasons on wolves which will mean more of the hounding, trapping, snaring and high kill quotas that pushed them to the brink of extinction in the first place.
This legislation not only aims to prematurely delist an imperiled species, but also seeks to block judicial review, an essential part of any modern democratic society and necessary a part of enforcing the Endangered Species Act. Please oppose S. 1514.
Please take action today. Spread the word, and share my story.
This is our hail mary.