ESCANABA - U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has affirmed the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to remove gray wolves from the list of threatened and endangered species in the western Great Lakes and some western Rocky Mountain states.
This is great news, according to Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Becky Humphries. "Gray wolves have made a strong and successful recovery in our state," she said. "This decision will allow management of the species to be performed by the state, so that we can fully (complete and) implement the state's wolf management plan."
That euphoria may once again be short-lived, however.
Studies completed during the past decade indicate a correlation between the increase in the wolf population and the decline in the white-tail deer population in the U.P.
A report was issued by New West, a next-generation media company dedicated to the culture, economy, politics, environment and lifestyle of the Rocky Mountain West, less than two hours after Salazar's announcement. The Sierra Club sent out a press release saying: "The state plans could threaten the long-term survival of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies, especially given the genetic isolation of wolves throughout the recovery area. Aggressive wolf-killing practices, coupled with genetic isolation and plans to institute hunts in Idaho and Montana, could push wolf numbers dangerously low and reverse decades of recovery work. The Sierra Club, along with other conservation groups, plans to challenge the wolf delisting decision in court."
It remains to be seen if Michigan will be affected by yet another challenge.
So what does the DNR do in the mean time?
In order for the gray wolf to be totally managed, control measures will need to be in place that will help control over-population and nuisance problems in the Upper Peninsula.
There is depredation legislation in place that will permit the taking of wolves by lethal methods, should there be an attack on domestic pets and/or livestock. Before the DNR can otherwise implement any full course management, the wolf will also have to become a game species in Michigan, an act that can only be done by the legislature. Then, under the covenants of Proposal G, the DNR Commission (NRC) will be authorized to establish hunting and/or trapping seasons and quotas within the state. The NRC will have to use science as the premise in making future decisions. To date, the best science out there is common sense.
There is some monitoring data that shows a steady increase in the predator populations of wolves, coyotes and bear. At the same time the data shows a steady decline in the base populations of white-tailed deer. The numbers reflect monitoring over the last decade. There are endless accounts of wolf attacks on deer, some of which have been accompanied by some pretty graphic photos. These are not limited to the sick and weak of the species either. Many are healthy bucks and does. Some of these kills are not just for subsistence, as examples exist of deer being killed and left by wolves. It is also clearly established that the quality of habitat continues to impact deer survival, reducing dispersal and increasing them as targets.
There is no question that the gray wolf has exceeded public acceptance with its growing numbers. Last estimates indicate at least 520 reside in the U.P. There is not a desire to totally be rid them, however. Most people realize that controlling the number of wolves residing in the U.P. in order to protect the base population is truly in the best interest of the species. If not done, many believe the long-term impact wolves are having on the white-tailed deer will cause more consolidation of packs and introduce disease that could wipe them out.
So how does the DNR substantiate the claim that wolves are having a major impact on other wildlife (deer) as predators? How does predation tie into the other components, such as weather and habitat, impacting deer (fawn) mortality?
In February, a three-year hands on study began in the U.P. It is a joint venture with sponsorship by the DNR, Safari Club International Foundation, and the Safari Club's Michigan Involvement Committee. Mississippi State University College of Forest Resources has also invested financially and in-kind by providing equipment and graduate student researchers Nate Svoboda and Jared Duquette to the program. Jerrold Belant, also from Mississippi State, will oversee the project as principal investigator with Dean Byer and Craig Albright from the DNR as co-principal investigators.
In this study, the scientists will seek information in the low, middle and high snowfall zones to determine general health conditions of deer, the pregnancy rate of does, the health and mortality of newborn fawns and the mix of predators impacting the deer.
In upcoming reports, I'll provide information and pictures showing details of field work underway, including the importance, objectives and outcome. There will also be a need for public participation as warmer weather arrives and deer move away from winter range.
Whether it is finally time to establish full management of the wolf in Michigan or defend the need in court, we will soon be able to say the initiatives are based on sound science.
Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.