Paul A. Smith | Outdoors EditorA September incident in Adams County in which a man said he was approached by three wolves was not an "attack," according to an investigation by federal and state law enforcement officials.
However, efforts are underway to trap and kill wolves at the public property where the incident took place.
The trapping was initiated after Department of Natural Resources managers determined that wolves at Colburn Wildlife Area presented a risk to visitors, said Dave MacFarland, DNR large carnivore specialist.
A provision of the Endangered Species Act allows lethal removal of "specimens which pose a demonstrable but non-immediate threat to human safety."
The decision was made after consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MacFarland said.
"We've used (trapping and lethal removal) before in compliance with our public safety response protocol," MacFarland said. "This one is getting more attention."
The trapping began Oct. 16; it is being conducted by agents with the Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As of Tuesday, no wolf had been caught, according to the DNR.
The trapping initiative falls in the wake of a Sept. 23 incident at Colburn, a 4,965-acre public property.
Matthew Nellessen, 34, of Friendship was traveling alone on foot and scouting for a deer-hunting spot when he said he was attacked by three wolves.
According to Nellessen's account, he shot and wounded one of the wolves with his .38-caliber pistol.
He reported the incident to the DNR. State and federal law enforcement officers accompanied Nellessen to the spot of the incident the following day.
A short blood trail was found, but no wolf, said Todd Schaller, DNR chief warden.
Nellessen was not charged for his actions. "Through a joint investigation of the USFWS and DNR, and information we were able to obtain through the USFWS interview, there will be no law enforcement action taken (against Nellessen)," said Schaller.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is involved because a federal court decision in December placed the western Great Lakes population of wolves under protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Illegally taking a specimen protected by the act is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and up to a $100,000 fine.
Wisconsin had 746 to 771 wolves in 208 packs in late winter 2014-'15, according to the DNR.
The wolf population typically doubles in spring after pups are born, then begins to decline because of various sources of mortality.
The last three years, wolf mortality in Wisconsin included kills by licensed hunters and trappers.
The public wolf harvest was canceled for the foreseeable future by the December 2014 judgment that restored Endangered Species Act protections to the species.
With no wolf hunting or trapping this year, some see the decision to remove wolves at Colburn Wildlife Area as an offering by DNR executives to "wolf haters."
"While we would not oppose lethal measures where problems wolves have been verified, in this case evidence is insufficient," said Jodi Habush Sinykin, an attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates. "If law enforcement authorities say no attack occurred, it leads us to wonder about the motivation of the effort to kill wolves."
While the wolf trapping is being conducted, the DNR has closed two parking lots at Colburn.
Rachelle Blair of Lodi said she and her husband were turned away from the property in mid-October. They had grouse hunted at Colburn at least once a week this season until the parking lots were closed.
"We have seen wolf signs at Colburn, but haven't had any problems with wolves," said Blair, who hunts with her 1-year-old wire-haired pointing Griffon. "But we heard about the wolf trapping and packed up and have gone somewhere else since."
Wolves have generally been expanding their range and numbers in Wisconsin over the last couple decades.
Adams County, toward the southern end of Wisconsin's wolf range, has had two wolf packs since at least 2010, according to DNR reports.
MacFarland said the Adams County wolves have not caused problems in the past.
As a result of Nellessen's encounter, however, the DNR added a notation to its 2015 list of wolf depredations and other incidents. The Oct. 1 update includes a check mark in Adams County for a "non-livestock threat."
Two confirmed cases of wolf depredations on livestock have occurred this year in the southern half of Wisconsin, one each in Columbia and Crawford counties.
Nellessen's incident and the agencies' handling of it have drawn added attention because, if confirmed, it would have been the first verified wolf attack on a human in Wisconsin.
Since their investigation and interviews found no physical contact with the wolves and no injury to
Nellessen, law enforcement officials did not classify it as an attack. "It can become a semantic argument," MacFarland said. "No matter how it's described, it's a case where the department is following its protocol following a threat to human safety."
MacFarland said the trapping effort is being evaluated daily and results will dictate how long it continues.