Preliminary estimate puts number of Wisconsin wolves up 4-18-07

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A preliminary estimate of Wisconsin's gray wolf population put it at between 539 and 590 during the winter, compared with a maximum of 502 a year earlier, the state Department of Natural Resources says.

The winter population estimate is the highest since wolves returned to Wisconsin from Minnesota during the mid-1970s.

Adrian Wydeven, a wolf ecologist for the agency, attributed the rise in the population reported by the agency Tuesday to several factors.

They include an abundance of public land, a teeming deer population and wolves' own population dynamics through which it has grown steadily ``and then just seems to have taken off.''

Another factor is a ``fairly tolerant public,'' he said, and a deep reverence in some circles for an animal that graces Wisconsin's endangered resources license plate.

``I'm not surprised'' by the new estimate, said Eric Koens of the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association. ``Everybody is seeing more wolves.''

The DNR's count does not include pups born this spring and nine wolves that are believed to live on Indian reservations.

Earlier this week, animal advocacy groups filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for removing wolves from the endangered species list in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.

The suit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., claims that wolves remain endangered in the three states.