TRAVERSE CITY (AP) - Animal welfare activists have protested in vain the past couple of years as the federal government dropped the gray wolf from its endangered species list and legislatures in five states allowed hunters to shoot the resilient predators. In Michigan, they're trying a new tactic: taking their case directly to the voters.
Lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder approved a bill in December that designated the wolf as a game animal - a first step toward allowing hunts. The Natural Resources Commission, a panel appointed by the governor that regulates hunting, fishing and trapping, has the final say. The commission could schedule a hunt as early as this fall in the rural, woodsy Upper Peninsula, where the wolf population is estimated at around 700.
But opposition groups and native Indian tribes in favor of protecting the wolves are campaigning for a statewide referendum on the new law. If they gather enough petition signatures to get the issue on the November 2014 election ballot, the measure - and any potential hunt - will be put on hold until after the vote.
Organizers need at least 161,300 signatures but have a goal of 225,000 in case some are ruled invalid.
They are planning a series of meetings across the state to line up foot soldiers who will circulate petitions.
"People care very much about wolves and wanted them protected, and certainly don't want them hunted and trapped just as they're starting to recover," said Jill Fritz, Michigan director for the Humane Society of the United States and leader of a coalition spearheading the petition drive.
It wouldn't be the first time Michigan voters overruled legislators on hunting policy. In 2006, they rejected by more than 2-to-1 a measure allowing hunters to target mourning doves.
Pro-hunting groups are girding for battle, describing the attempt to block wolf hunting as a direct assault on the state's deeply ingrained shooting sports culture.
"The Humane Society of the United States is just another out-of-state interest group trying to hijack Michigan's ballot to push its radical animal rights agenda," said Tony Hansen, spokesman for Michigan United Conservation Clubs. Eric McDonough, the group's executive director, said regulated hunting has helped keep recovered species such as elk and wild turkeys healthy.
Wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned to the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states by the middle of the 20th century but have bounced back since being given legal protection in the 1960s and 1970s.
Natural migration from neighboring states and Ontario gave Michigan's wolves a foothold around 1990, and their numbers have grown steadily since then - along with complaints about attacks on farm and domestic animals.
A 2008 state law allows owners to kill wolves attacking livestock or pets, but catching them in the act isn't easy; they hunt in packs and kill quickly and efficiently. Some farmers - particularly in the western U.P. - say they're overwhelmed and need hunting and trapping to keep wolf numbers in check.
The DNR says decisions about hunting should be based on scientific data and a management plan it developed in consultation with a variety of interests, including environmentalists. The plan says hunts could be justified if necessary to reduce wolf-human conflicts in limited areas where the problems are severe and other control methods aren't working, spokeswoman Debbie Munson Badini said.
Department biologists are conducting an updated wolf census and gathering statistics on livestock depredation. It will submit a report with a recommendation about hunting to the Natural Resources Commission in May or June.
The DNR would consider a referendum "unwarranted and ill-advised" because it could undermine the regulatory authority granted to the commission in a 1996 statewide vote, Badini said.
But leaders of the petition drive say more time is needed to determine whether the wolf population is secure enough to thrive without federal legal protection, which was removed only a year ago. Scheduling a hunt this soon, they say, would be based less on science than pleasing sportsmen.
"Wolves are not taken for food. This is merely about a trophy for hunters," said Derek Bailey, former chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Wolves have a strong cultural significance for the region's native tribes dating back to their traditional creation stories, he said.
Some hunters contend wolves are killing too many deer. Rolf Peterson, a biologist who has studied wolves for decades on Isle Royale National Park, testified before a state Senate committee that wolves actually strengthen the deer population by culling sick ones and preventing spread of disease.
Advocacy groups aren't pushing for referendums in other states where wolf hunting has resumed. Minnesota and Wisconsin don't permit statewide votes on policy issues. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming do, but there's little evidence that an effort to defeat wolf hunting at the ballot box would succeed in the rural Northern Rockies, where ranchers wield heavy clout.
Still, a solid victory in Michigan might begin to change attitudes elsewhere, said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.
"There's an assumption among politicians in these states that the public supports killing wolves for sport and commerce," he said. "I'm confident the Michigan referendum is going to turn around that false perception ... and help arrest this expansion of wolf hunting and begin to pare it back."