Michigan’s first sanctioned wolf hunt is slated to begin Nov. 15. It could also be the state’s last one.
The hunt will continue until Dec. 31 or once 43 wolves are killed, whichever comes first. Licenses in the Upper Peninsula went on sale last month, and though original reports said all 1,200 licenses sold out almost immediately, they didn’t officially sell out until Oct. 4 after a handful of sales were invalidated, according to Michigan Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Debbie Munson Badini.
“It’s a good thing to get this thing off the ground and started,” said state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who sponsored the bill that established the first wolf hunting season in Michigan. “We’re coming at it with a pretty light number, which is good, and we’ll take it from there.”
Though the state sold 1,200 licenses, the hunt will only allow about seven percent of the state’s 658 wolves to be killed. Supporters of the hunt argue it curtails the danger wolves pose to livestock and pets.
But the hunt has been met with sharp dissent from the conservation group Keep Michigan Wolves Protected. The organization opposed Casperson’s bill, and collected enough signatures from citizens to put the matter up to a vote on next year’s ballot.
Casperson countered with another bill that gave Michigan’s seven-person Natural Resources Commission power to determine which game can be hunted. Previously, only the state legislature could do that.
After that measure was signed into law by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the commission soon approved a wolf hunt. That effectively negated the efforts of those trying to let Michigan voters decide on allowing the hunt. Even if a majority voted to stop the first bill, the commission would still hold authority to put wolves on the list of approved game species.
Now comes a new challenge. Keep Michigan Wolves Protected is collecting signatures to put the Natural Resources Commission’s authority to set the hunt to a vote, too. If enough signatures are collected, both the measure allowing the wolves to be hunted and the one giving the authority to the Natural Resources Commission to determine the state’s game species will be put to statewide votes in November 2014.
The bill giving the commission the authority to set the hunt was clearly meant to bypass the first referendum, said Jill Fritz, president of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.
“It was the legislature basically saying ‘we don’t care what the voters think, or what they want.’ They wanted their wolf hunt, and they were going to do whatever they had to do,” she said.
Casperson doesn’t see it that way, citing a proposal passed in the 1996 election that gave the Natural Resources Commission power to regulate the taking of game in Michigan. That proposal gave the commission authority to establish rules and dates for hunting seasons, but it wasn’t until Casperson’s most recent bill that the commission’s power to declare specific game species was established.
“When I heard (criticism) that we’re taking the voice away from the people, I had a hard time digesting that in the sense that the NRC was put in place by the people.” he said. “And it said their decisions must be based upon sound science.”
Though both sides claim to have science on their side, John Vucetich, associate professor of Michigan Technological University’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, said the facts don’t support a hunt, especially if the main argument is that it will decrease the number of wolf attacks on livestock.
“The NRC couldn’t possibly be motivated by sound science,” said Vucetich. “If you were motivated by sound science, you would never come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with livestock depredations is to have a general harvest.”
Taking out 43 wolves will make little to no impact on livestock attacks, he said.
“If you do the calculations to figure out how many wolves you’d have to kill, the math doesn’t add up,” he said. “You’d have to kill hundreds of wolves to reduce livestock losses.”
But not all conservationists oppose the hunting of wolves. Michigan United Conservation Clubs, a group that supports hunting and trapping of animals provided “sound, science-based conservation principles are followed,” believes that, over time, the hunt will benefit the ecosystem in the Upper Peninsula.
“It’s a longer term goal. Certainly a one-year harvest is not going to really put a dent in the population,” said Amy Trotter, resource policy manager for the organization.
“We feel that the hunt that’s coming up this year is based on good scientific principles of wildlife management. We’re being very conservative this year, and for future hunts we’re going to learn a lot,” she said.
But while the long-term effect won’t be known for years, many scientists believe a small hunt such as this year’s could make wolf attacks worse by causing wolves to scatter into new, unknown locations, Vucetich said.
“Having resident wolves that have been there for a while is generally better for a livestock owner than having new wolves coming through to a new area,” he said. “Those wolves are not familiar with where the wild prey are, and they’re threatened by wolves that do live in that area, so there’s a good possibility those wolves are going to be interested in taking the easiest prey possible, which would be livestock.”
But the biggest problem is the lack of a defined goal by state officials, he said.
“The DNR has no stated goal for the harvest,” he said. “That’s atrocious. You can’t have wildlife management going on with no stated goal. That’s not sound science and not sound wildlife management.”
Regardless of the arguments, the hunt is on for next month. All 1,200 state-licensed hunters will have the opportunity to kill one of the 43 wolves before the state caps the harvest. Hunters are required to call the Department of Natural Resources every morning they plan to hunt wolves.
When the quota of 43 wolves is reached, they will be instructed to stop hunting.
But if Michigan voters shut down both pro-hunting bills before the 2014 hunting season begins, this November’s hunt could be the first – and last – of its kind.