MADISON, Wis. -- For years, vacationers and farmers across northern Wisconsin and Minnesota have heard the eerie howl of the gray wolf and fretted the creatures were lurking around their cabins and pastures, eying up Fido or Bessie. The tables are about to turn: Both states plan to launch their first organized wolf hunts in the coming weeks.
The hunts won't be anything on the scale of the two states' beloved whitetail deer hunts, when hundreds of thousands of hunters rearrange work and school schedules and fan out across the woods. Both states have limited the number of wolves hunters can kill and capped the number of permits, creating an exclusive club of hunters who will get what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take on the wiliest of predators.
Anticipation has reached a fever pitch, but most hunters will come face-to-face with a sobering fact within a few hours of venturing into the woods -- wolves aren't deer or ducks. They're intelligent, mobile creatures with an unmatched sense of smell. The states could be hard-pressed to meet their kill goals.
"Everybody's gung-ho to go kill a wolf but nobody realizes how hard it's going to be," said Bud Martin, a Montana-based hunting guide who shot a wolf two years ago in Idaho. "I'll bet you a steak dinner your quota won't be met."
Wolf hunting isn't unheard of in the United States. Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming allow it. Federal officials removed Great Lakes wolves from the endangered species list in January. That spurred Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin lawmakers to draft bills establishing hunts, too, pushing aside animal advocates' concerns that the wolf populations remain too fragile to sustain hunting.
Farmers in all three states have long complained about wolves wreaking havoc on their livestock. Wildlife officials estimate there are now 700 wolves in Michigan and 850 in Wisconsin. About 3,000 roam Minnesota, the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states.
Michigan's hunt legislation still is pending but Wisconsin's season is set to open Oct. 15. Minnesota's season is on track to begin Nov. 3. On Wednesday the Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected a bid by hunt opponents to block the season.
"It's going to happen," said Nancy Warren, Great Lakes regional director for the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, which maintains the Wisconsin and Minnesota legislation was rushed and wasn't based on sound science. "All we can do is try to change the law and see what happens this year and take it from there."
Both states will allow hunters to bait, shoot and trap wolves. Wisconsin also will allow night hunting and the use of dogs. Wildlife officials have kept the hunts small, though, as they feel their way along; Wisconsin set its quota at 116 animals and awarded only 1,160 permits through a lottery. Minnesota set its limit at 400 animals and awarded 6,000 permits.
Joe Caputo, 50, of Spring Green, Wis., won a permit in his state. A life-long deer hunter, he's boning up on wolves, preparing to drop more than $3,000 on two dozen new wolf traps and seeking out northern Wisconsin landowners who have suffered wolf depredation.
"This is the ultimate challenge," Caputo said. "You're talking the largest-scale predator on the landscape."
Beverly Kiger, a Grand Rapids, Minn.-based trophy hunter who has bagged a wildebeest and an impala in South Africa, bought her wolf permit the same day she discovered she'd won one. She wants to add a full-size wolf mount to her collection. She plans to start scouting for wolf signs, perhaps around her cabin in far northeastern Minnesota.
"To get a (wolf) as a trophy would be awesome," she said.
Mark Dahms, 54, of Waukesha, Wis., entered that state's lottery with three friends. He was the only one who won a permit. He's taking off time from his job as an electrician and plans on employing a newly purchased electronic call that can produce 400 sounds mimicking wolves and distressed animals.
"First time in modern-day history is why I entered," he said. "The big thing is (getting) the hide."
But whether the hunters ever see a wolf is anybody's guess. Montana, for example, sold nearly 18,700 licenses in the 2011 season but hunters took only 166 animals, a success rate of less than 1 percent.
Wolves are mostly nocturnal and they're dispersed over a wide range, making the chances of encountering one remote. They're extremely smart, too. If one wolf is killed the others in its pack can become even more cautious. And their sense of smell is so keen that trappers boil their snares to eliminate any human scent.
Making matters even tougher for Wisconsin hunters is a lawsuit filed by a group of humane societies seeking to block the use of dogs. A judge has issued a temporary injunction while he weighs the case, meaning the most effective approach to hunting wolves won't be available for at least the first half of the state's season.
"Your hunters are going to be in for a real shock. There's nothing harder to hunt and kill than a wolf," said Martin, the Montana hunting guide. "The ones who actually shoot a wolf, the data won't even graph. (And) what's going to happen with the trapping ... is the same thing that happened out here. They went out, set a bunch of traps, run the lines for three weeks and caught absolutely nothing."
But Wisconsin and Minnesota hunters remain undaunted. They contend the states have grossly underestimated their wolf populations.
"They're all over the place," said Wisconsin permit winner Donald Bohr, 57, of Wausau. "We had them right in our garden here a couple of years ago, three wolves surrounding our dog. Wasn't 40 yards from the house. You'll hear that story more than once (from other landowners). There's a lot more of them out there than everybody says."