The grey wolf was taken off the federal list of protected species in 2012, having recovered from being nearly hunted to extinction by the mid-twentieth century. A year later, the state of Michigan held its first grey wolf hunt and a total of 22 wolves were killed, about half the permitted quota for the season.
Enough Michigan residents opposed the hunt to send the law to popular referendum, after a group called Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, an organization backed by the Humane Society, submitted a petition of over 253,000 signatures. This coming election day, the wolf hunt will be on the ballot (proposal 14-1), along with a second proposal which authorizes a seven-member commission to chose which species can be hunted and to decide hunting seasons (proposal 14-2)—without the possibility of future referendums.
Opponents describe the first proposal as a “trophy hunt” and the second as a “power grab.”
Proposal 14-1: Establishing a hunting season for wolves
The seven-person Natural Resources Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, voted for the 2013 wolf hunt as a further means to reduce the number of conflicts between domestic animals.
“Michigan’s wolf hunt, unlike some of the other states, is not a recreational hunt. It has two very specific wildlife management goals,” said Drew YoungeDyke, a representative of the pro-hunting group Michigan United Conservation Clubs. The first goal is to reduce the number of wolf attacks on domestic animals, also referred to as “degradation instances.”
“The other thing they want to do is use public hunting pressure to make wolves more wary of people,” said YoungeDyke. “They’ve done studies with multiple wildlife species that show after you hunt them, it’s much tougher to get close to them.”
Separate from the hunt, it is already legal in Michigan to kill a wolf that is threatening domestic animals and people, although there have been no documented attacks on humans by wolves in Michigan. Farmers can also obtain a permit to kill any wolves on their property, regardless of whether or not animals are being attacked, and can also designate others to shoot wolves on their property. In addition, farmers receive compensation for the full market value of any animal confirmed to have been killed by a wolf.
For YoungeDyke, hunting and fishing aren’t at odds with conservation goals. “The conservation movement in the early part of the 20th century and continuing to this day was spearheaded by hunters and anglers who saw game populations diminishing, and wanted to conserve the animals for which they hunted,” he said. The wolf hunt specifically provides an "extra tool in the wildlife manager’s toolbox.”
Dr. John Vucetich, a biologist at Michigan Tech who studies the state’s wolves, disagrees that a hunt will reduce the number of attacks on livestock. “If your intention is to reduce the number of livestock losses, everything we know about it says we have to deal with it in a precise and timely manner and hunting simply doesn’t have those properties,” he told TreeHugger.
Vucetich points out that there are about a dozen livestock losses per year. “You could say that’s a sufficiently small number that farmers could be compensated,” he said. “I have no interest in passing judgment on whether that’s a big problem or a small problem. We can figure that out as a society. It’s just that hunting doesn’t solve that as an issue.”
According to the most recent numbers from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, there are a minimum of 636 wolves in Michigan, all found in the state’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula. This is down from 687 when federal protections for wolves were lifted, but Vucetich said that we don’t have enough data to know if the overall population is trending up or down, and that it may in fact be leveling out.
Between 2010 and 2013, there were 136 confirmed wolf attacks on domestic animals in Michigan, many of these attacks were on dogs. “Most confirmed wolf attacks on dogs are actually hounds pursuing game that are sent by their owners into known wolf territory, where there have already been confirmed wolf attacks on dogs,” said Jill Fritz, the Director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources provides advice for avoiding dog/wolf conflicts and a map of where incidents have occurred. “They advise hounders to not send their dogs into those areas. They do it anyway, and then they complain and cry crocodile tears that the wolves are attacking their dogs.”
The idea that wolves need to be made wary of humans is just as controversial as the idea that the hunt will reduce attacks on domestic animals. “Wolves are not a threat to human safety, that’s the first and most important thing,” said Dr. Vucetich. “Whatever behavior you would expect to see from bullets whizzing past the heads of wolves, we’ve already seen, because wolves have been poached at non-trivial levels ever since they’ve been here in Michigan and wolves have also been subject to lethal control.”
Proposal 14-2: Granting the Natural Resources Commission the power to designate game species
Vucetich was one of the experts that provided testimony to the Natural Resources Commission. The commission also heard from representatives of pro-hunting groups, and from representatives of other states with wolf hunts. The only member of the commission to vote against the wolf hunt was Annoesjka Steinman, the director of the Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids and the only person sitting on the board with a degree in natural resources management. She has since resigned from the commission, leaving no one on the board with a degree in natural resources management or biology. “As of right now, there’s no requirement for them to have any knowledge or expertise in biology or natural resources management,” said Jill Fritz.
YoungeDyke, who is also a governor-appointed member of the Michigan Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Committee, does not see the lack of scientists on the commission as a problem. “The [Natural Resources Commission] is actually a citizen commission, that sits there like a permanent jury,” he said. “We believe that that’s the best method for making determinations about what species we hunt, how they’re hunt and even if they’re hunted.”
Further legislation--and complications
Even if Michigan voters reject the law granting the Natural Resources Commission the power to designate game species, opponents of the hunt won't be able to declare victory yet. A third bill passed by Michigan legislature this August contains the same language to grant the commission the same powers of deciding what species can be hunted and to set a hunting season without legislative action. This time, the bill comes with a million dollar appropriation to fight invasive carp. The addition of the appropriation means that the bill can’t be overturned by popular referendum in Michigan. However, this bill won’t go into effect until March, and Jill Fritz said that her organization intends to sue to overturn that language.
“It’s essential that both referendums be voted down to pave the way for our lawsuit to overturn that initiative language and at the end of the day, wolves will return to non-game status and citizens will retain their right to referendum,” said Fritz.
So, even though voters will have their say on the issue on November 4, it won’t be the end of the Michigan wolf debate.