Law enforcement officials and biologists have closed an investigation into an incident in the Colburn Wildlife Area in Adams County Sept. 23 in which a hunter shot at an aggressive wolf with his sidearm. No citations will be issued based on information currently available.
Great Lakes wolves were put back on the federal endangered species list in December 2014, preventing lethal control except in cases of self-defense and threats to human health and safety.
A second, hitherto unreported wolf encounter at the same location helped confirm the hunter's report.
An investigation at the site of the encounter by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) determined that hunter Matthew Nellessen's actions should be considered self-defense.
The investigation found that Nellessen unknowingly entered a wolf rendezvous site on the Colburn Wildlife Area while scouting for hunting spots. Startled, several wolves approached Nellessen and exhibited signs of aggression. At least one wolf came so close that Nellessen attempted to kick it. Nellessen felt his life was at risk and drew his Walther PK .380 sidearm, shooting at the wolves at close range. The wolves dispersed, leaving a light blood trail.
The Endangered Species Act states that "no civil penalty shall be imposed if it can be shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant committed an act based on a good faith belief that he was acting to protect himself or herself, a member of his or her family, or any other individual from bodily harm, from any endangered or threatened species."
DNR Large Carnivore Specialist David MacFarland said a second encounter, which supports Nellessen's claim, occurred Oct. 10 at the same location as the Sept. 23 encounter.
"An individual and his son were hunting during the Youth Deer Hunt, and they actually were in the same exact location, down to the tree, as the first incident," MacFarland said. "It was the same situation where wolves came uncomfortably close. Not the same interaction that the first individual had, but wolves getting a little too close and acting in a bold manner."
MacFarland said the area of both encounters is located on an outcropping of hardwoods surrounded by wetlands. The area was likely a wolf rendezvous site. Wolf packs use rendezvous sites when they are raising pups that are old enough to leave a den but not mature enough to run with the pack and hunt.
"The wolf sign in the immediate area of these incidents - and when I say immediate area, I mean 50 yards - was substantial," MacFarland said. "So it was clear that these animals were spending a substantial amount of time there and likely had pups."
MacFarland said a wolf carcass was never located, nor did investigators find any sign of opportunistic scavenging that would have occurred in the event of a wolf death. In all likelihood, Nellessen's shot was not fatal.
Nellessen has two hunting-related convictions. In 2014, he was accused of transporting a loaded firearm in his vehicle and one case of hunting within 50 feet of the road's center. He pled guilty to both convictions and forfeited $481. Both citations were issued Nov. 28, the day after Thanksgiving during the annual nine-day gun deer hunt.
MacFarland said it is important to note that wolves did not make any physical contact in either encounter - which is why he hesitates to label either encounter as an attack. Based on the information at the scene, however, the wolves came close enough for Nellessen to attempt to kick them. As such, wildlife officials are treating this pack as a threat to human health and safety and are proceeding accordingly.
The subsequent action plan includes closing two of the area's three parking lots and access points. The parking areas on the north and east sides of the property have walking trails that lead directly to the site of the incidents.
The Colburn Wildlife Area itself remains open, and users can still access the parking area on the west side of the property on 6th Ave. between Chicago Ave. to the south and County Highway C to the north.
MacFarland said the USDA Wildlife Services, in consultation with the USFWS and the property manager, has begun trapping in the area with the intent to lethally remove wolves from the area. Despite being protected federally, the state retains the authority to implement lethal control methods if animals are deemed a threat to human health and safety.
No target quota of wolves has been set, but officials will reevaluate the plan based on the rate of capture. Wolf activity in the Colburn Wildlife Area has been greatly reduced since the investigation began. The lack of trapping success is likely due to seasonal wolf behavior, MacFarland said.
"Wolf activity in the area has dropped dramatically since we've been active on-site," MacFarland said. "That could possibly be due to these interactions ... Another thing is the ecology of wolves. This time of year is the period when pups are really maturing and are able to run with the pack and they enter into a much more nomadic phase."
Wildlife officials will continue monitoring the area daily as trapping continues. Trail cameras have also been positioned around the property to monitor the pack.
The Colburn Wildlife Area sits at the southeastern edge of the Central Forest Zone, an area known to have wolves. Still, MacFarland said, this was unusual behavior for wolves regardless of geographic location.
When asked if this behavior was particularly aggressive or out of the norm for wolves, MacFarland said "the behavior of the wolves and the close proximity indicate that the behavior was unusually bold."
MacFarland said such behavior "does not happen very frequently," but it's not unprecedented.
"We have, on multiple occasions when wolves were listed, enacted our authority to euthanize wolves," MacFarland said. "It's not a common occurrence, but it's not uncommon either."
As of press time, no wolves have been captured or euthanized in the Colburn Wildlife Area.
Ryan Matthews may be reached at email@example.com.
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