Liberalizing the killing of endangered wolves was associated with more disappearances of collared individuals in Wisconsin, USA. Santiago-Ávila FJ, Chappell RJ, Treves A. Scientific Reports. 2020 Aug
Although poaching (illegal killing) is an important cause of death for large carnivores globally, the effect of lethal management policies on poaching is unknown for many populations. Two opposing hypotheses have been proposed: liberalizing killing may decrease poaching incidence (‘tolerance hunting’) or increase it (‘facilitated poaching’). For gray wolves in Wisconsin, USA, we evaluated how five causes of death and disappearances of monitored, adult wolves were influenced by policy changes. We found slight decreases in reported wolf poaching hazard and incidence during six liberalized killing periods, but that was outweighed by larger increases in hazard and incidence of disappearance. Although the observed increase in the hazard of disappearance cannot be definitively shown to have been caused by an increase in cryptic poaching, we discuss two additional independent lines of evidence making this the most likely explanation for changing incidence among n = 513 wolves’ deaths or disappearances during 12 replicated changes in policy. Support for the facilitated poaching hypothesis suggests the increase (11–34%) in disappearances reflects that poachers killed more wolves and concealed more evidence when the government relaxed protections for endangered wolves. We propose a refinement of the hypothesis of ‘facilitated poaching’ that narrows the cognitive and behavioral mechanisms underlying wolf-killing.