“A guy waits his whole life for such a naturally talented dog,” a Wisconsin hunter wrote to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, mourning the loss of his “irreplaceable” dog, Rusty. Wolves had killed the Bluetick-Walker hound on public land in the state in October 2022. “I would not have sold him for any price. It would be like putting a price on one of my kids.”
If it’s determined that a wolf killed a hunting dog in Wisconsin, the owner may receive up to $2,500 in compensation, and if a wolf injures a dog, money may be awarded to help cover veterinary expenses. Rusty, whose owner got the full $2,500, was one of about 20 hunting dogs the state compensated hunters for last year. The fees are paid from the state’s tax-funded natural heritage program.
Several states, as well as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburse ranchers and farmers for livestock killed or injured by wolves or other predators. But Wisconsin is the only state to award money for hunting dogs.
The payments go back decades. With gray wolf numbers increasing during the 1970s, the state introduced a policy to pay hunters whose hounds were killed or injured by the predators, mostly during bear hunts. The payments were “a way to increase tolerance for wolves being on the landscape,” says Brad Koele, a wildlife damage specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.
A 2013 study investigating conflicts between wolves and hunting dogs in Michigan and Wisconsin showed that they were more frequent in the latter. That’s mostly because Wisconsin has fewer restrictions on bear baiting practices, which involves luring them with food—and inevitably attracts wolves as well, says Joseph Bump, a professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota and the study’s lead author. Then too, he adds, Michigan doesn’t reimburse hunters for wolf attacks on their dogs.
Hunters received $39,500 from Wisconsin in 2022 alone for dogs killed by wolves, and to date, the natural resources department has paid nearly $1 million for killed dogs, as well as thousands more dollars to help owners cover veterinary bills for injured dogs. That’s partly because hunting dogs are one of the most valuable animals eligible for such reimbursements, Koele says. The payout for hunting dogs can be more than triple the roughly $500 to $800 for calves—the most common victims of wolf predation. The total the state has paid for dogs killed by wolves is about 12 times the amount for pet dogs and about 15 times the reimbursement for sheep.
“State-sanctioned dogfighting”—that’s how Kerry Beheler, a scientist who performed wolf necropsies for the natural resources department for 14 years, describes the payment policy. She says it also rewards hunters who allow—or even encourage—their dogs to fight with wolves, because they know they can apply for compensation.
The number of payouts—“usually in excess of 20” a year—and the fact that there are “repeat claimants” seems suspicious, says Paul Collins, Wisconsin state director for the nonprofit Animal Wellness Action. “It’s basically become a free-for-all.”
A federal court ruling in 2022 gave Endangered Species Act protections to wolves in many states, including Wisconsin. Following that decision, the state issued a press release saying, among other things, that the “training of dogs to track and trail wolves is not allowed.”
Hunting dogs are “specifically trained to pursue individual species,” Koele says. “A well-trained dog that's being used on a bear typically is not going to break that track and go chase a wolf.”
That’s not always the case, Collins says. “Of course, the dogs go after whatever scent that they pick up.”
Wisconsin has nearly a thousand wolves—a “healthy, secure” population, according to the Department of Natural Resources. But hunting dogs tangling with wolves puts pressure on the population, Beheler says. Other animals, such as bears and bobcats, can climb trees to escape, she says. Wolves don’t do that; instead, they’ll run to exhaustion—and often death.
How the reimbursement policy works
Hunters typically begin training their dogs to track bears in July for the month-and-a-half-long legal hunting season that starts in September. That’s when wolf pups emerge from their dens, and adults are primed to protect their young from any threat, including dogs, Beheler says.
When targeting bears, most hunters track their dogs with GPS collars. If a wolf attack occurs, a hunter can file a claim with the natural resources department. The USDA’s Wildlife Services agency then investigates the site where it happened and assesses the evidence, such as animal tracks, scat, and teeth marks on the dead or injured dog. (Wildlife Services is a government agency tasked with killing “problem” predators including coyotes, using indiscriminate weapons such as cyanide bombs. In 2021, the agency killed 1.76 million animals—nearly 3,000 by accident, including a federally protected bald eagle.)
There are few restrictions on Wisconsin’s hunting dog reimbursements. There’s no limit, for example, on the amount paid to treat dogs’ injuries, Koele says. In 2022, one hunter received more than $10,500, according to records obtained by National Geographic. Also, hunting licenses in Wisconsin used to mandate that dogs be vaccinated against rabies, but in 2017, the state legislature repealed that requirement. Koele says he’s not aware of any instances since then of hunting dogs transmitting rabies to wildlife, or people.
Wisconsin is a popular bear hunting destination, and out-of-staters are eligible for reimbursements too. One of last year’s largest payments—$4,500 for two dead dogs—went to a Minnesota resident. Collins says that when he drives Wisconsin highways in summer, he’s seen trucks carrying hounds from all over the country. “I've seen Alaska plates before,” he says.
A 2014 investigation by Wisconsin Watch, a nonprofit journalism outlet, found that a handful of hunters made repeated successful claims; several lived outside the state, and some had a history of hunting violations.
Roadmaps for reimbursement
On its website, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources posts an advisory urging hunters to “exercise greater caution” if they plan to train or hunt in certain areas known to have wolves.
Beheler says some hunters likely use these caution areas as roadmaps. “They’ll go there, and they'll leave their dogs there,” she says. “The dogs will get killed, and they'll get $2,500 per dog.”
This is not a concern, Koele says. Hunters won’t necessarily avoid caution areas, but they will take precautions such as putting bells on their dogs’ collars, he says. “Groups of hunters have a certain area that they hunt, and they don't necessarily move to other locations,” he says, because doing so “creates conflict.” Even though the land is public, people have their unofficial hunting territories, and others don’t encroach on them.
With the posted caution areas and general awareness of the payment policy, “all the pieces are in place” for the policy to be abused, Joseph Bump says. “It's bad wildlife management.”
Some Wisconsinites have complained that hunters have brandished weapons at them or threatened them, the Wisconsin Examiner reported last year. Repeated efforts by animal welfare groups to end the dog reimbursement policy have been unsuccessful, Collins says.
“There are fierce defenders of this whole culture here in Wisconsin, and they have the ear of our legislature,” he says. “It's a very vocal minority.” The Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, a pro-hunting lobbyist group, has contributed more than $360,000 to legislative and state candidates since 2000.
Koele says the policy is a state legislative decision, and he encourages people to “work through their local elected officials” if they want to end it.
“Why are we creating basically an insurance program for someone's recreational activity?” Bump asks. Collins agrees. “If I went on a state trail, twisted my ankle, the state's not going to reimburse me for my medical care.”