Path made clear for a wolf hunt

Lansing — Michigan lawmakers last week approved legislation to establish the state’s gray wolf as a game species and give the DNR’s Natural Resources Commission the authority to establish a hunting season.

Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said he introduced Senate Bill 1350 to give the NRC authority to consider a hunt as another tool to manage wolves that continue to cause depredation problems for farmers and creep into several Upper Peninsula communities.

Critics of the legislation, however, contend officials haven’t provided data necessary to determine if a wolf hunt is feasible, and should do so before reclassifying the animal as a game species.

Farmers and others facing wolf conflicts should make better use of non-lethal options currently available in the state’s wolf management plan, opponents argued.

“We’ve been frustrated because we think action has been slow coming,” Casperson told Michigan Outdoor News.

Michigan’s current wolf management plan, which allows residents to kill wolves in the process of attacking their livestock, isn’t a long-term solution to managing the growing wolf population, he said.

“A farmer isn’t sitting around … with a rifle in hand. We don’t think you can reasonably manage the wolf population by chance of being in the right place at the right time,” Casperson said.

The bill reclassifies wolves as a game species in Michigan, authorizes the NRC to establish the first open season, and lays out the fees for wolf-hunting licenses and applications – a $100 fee for a resident license and $500 for a nonresident. The application fee for a wolf license is set at $4.

SB 1350 also codifies an existing wolf advisory group as the “Wolf Management Advisory Council,” and stipulates the number of members assigned to represent the DNR, the state’s Indian tribes, agricultural interests, animal rights advocates, and hunters.

Michigan DNR Wildlife Chief Russ Mason said the state supports the legislation because it gives wildlife managers another tool to control the Upper Peninsula’s wolf population, which is nearing 800 animals and growing by about 10 percent per year.

Mason said a wolf roundtable assembled to craft the current wolf-management plan “agreed hunting would be an appropriate tool to resolve wolf conflict issues,” and he believes the current population likely can sustain some kind of hunt.

“In order to impact the viability of the current population … we would have to remove 30 percent of the wolves per year,” he said.

Michigan United Conservation Clubs also supports SB 1350. MUCC Legislative Affairs Manager Kent Wood said a serious discussion about the viability of a hunt to manage wolves is long overdue. 

“We feel the NRC and the DNR should have the full range of options … to manage wolves,” Wood said. “The feds and Michigan set a goal of 200 (wolves) to get them off the endangered species list, and we reached that number a decade ago.”

The wolf legislation comes less than a year after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves from the endangered species list for the Great Lakes region, a move that shifted management authority to the states.

Wisconsin and Minnesota – the other two Great Lakes states with sizable wolf populations – already enacted wolf-hunting seasons.

Several groups spoke out and submitted testimony against SB 1350 throughout the legislative process, including the Michigan Humane Society, the Humane Society of the United States, and representatives of the state’s Native American tribes.

Jill Fritz, Michigan state director for HSUS, contends that it’s “too early” and Michigan has “too few” wolves to discuss a potential hunting season. The NRC doesn’t need legislative approval to look more closely at that possibility, she said. HSUS believes farmers and others dealing with wayward wolves in the Upper Peninsula should stick with non-lethal methods of controlling their behavior.

“I have been hearing from so many citizens in Michigan, all across the state … who are appalled at the thought of wolves being hunted and trapped,” Fritz said. “Why can’t they be conducting more studies without putting the wolves on the game species list?”

The Michigan Humane Society, which isn’t affiliated with HSUS, took a similar position.

“More education, more working with farmers, and more non-lethal methods are the best way to manage the population,” MHS spokesman Kevin Hatman said. “They were just delisted, and considering how tenuous the population can be … it seems too early to consider something like a wolf hunt.”

Neither Fritz nor Hatman could provide an appropriate timeframe or population goal for discussing hunting as a management option for wolves.

“We prefer non-lethal methods of controlling the population,” Hatman said.

Jimmie Mitchell is the natural resources director for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and a representative of the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority. CORA is an umbrella organization for five Michigan Indian tribes that entered into a consent decree with the state, granting the tribes a voice in wildlife management decisions.

Mitchell said the Little River Band and the other CORA tribes oppose SB 1350 for several reasons.

“Our opposition is in regard to … the cultural significance of the animal” as an Indian clan species, he said. Wolves “are tied to the well-being of our existence.”

The consent decree also “gives CORA tribes co-management on equal footing with the state,” he said.

“The tribes and the state are required under federal law that we sit down and discuss these things,” Mitchell said. “We’re trying to get folks to do that so we can understand the scientific data behind the wolves, because that hasn’t been shared with the tribes.”

Casperson said he expects the NRC to consider a regional approach to any potential hunt, with a focus on areas with high concentrations of the animals, such as the western Upper Peninsula.

He said wolf population estimates and other data don’t paint the full picture of how wolves  impact local communities.

The DNR estimates between 700 and 800 wolves reside in Michigan.

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