TRAVERSE CITY (AP) - Advocates seeking to overturn a new state law that could lead to wolf hunting in Michigan said Tuesday they had collected more than enough petition signatures to require a statewide referendum.
If state election officials approve the petitions, the issue could be placed on the November 2014 general election ballot, promising a spirited debate over a predator that has rebounded in the western Great Lakes region after being hunted and trapped to near extinction in the lower 48 states in the last century.
"We're confident the voters will make the right decision and vote against the hunting of wolves," said Jill Fritz, director of a coalition called Keep Michigan Wolves Protected. "The overwhelming support we've seen from the public has been astounding and encouraging."
The Legislature enacted a bill in December classifying the gray wolf as a game species in Michigan - a necessary step before hunting could be approved.
The state Natural Resources Commission, appointed by the governor, is expected to decide as early as May whether to schedule a hunt this year.
But if the referendum is scheduled, the new law will be put on hold until voters determine its fate.
Keep Wolves Protected scheduled a news conference at the state Capitol in Lansing on Wednesday - the deadline for turning in the petitions. Members planned afterward to carry boxes of the documents to the nearby secretary of state's office.
The Michigan Board of State Canvassers will have 60 days to determine whether the group obtained the necessary 161,305 valid signatures. Organizers said they got more than 240,000 in case some are thrown out.
Hunting supporters contend the petition drive was pushed largely by out-of-state animal rights groups. But Keep Wolves Protected said more than 2,000 Michigan residents - including some hunters - took part. Fritz said the group collected signatures across the state, although she couldn't provide the total from the Upper Peninsula, where Michigan's roughly 700 wolves live.
The Michigan United Conservation Clubs said it would show voters that regulated sport hunting is part of a scientific strategy to keep the wolf population healthy, while controlling its numbers in areas where attacks on livestock and pets are a recurring problem.
The petition campaign's apparent success "tells us nothing about the issue other than if you are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and target areas of the state without a wolf population and refuse to educate the public about the issue, you can collect a lot of signatures," said Erin McDonough, the group's executive director.
Wolf numbers in the Great Lakes region exceeded 4,000 when the species was dropped from the federal endangered last year. Hunters and trappers in Minnesota and Wisconsin killed a combined 530 wolves last winter.
Michigan's Department of Natural Resources favors hunting in areas where conflicts between wolves and humans are severe and other control methods aren't working, spokesman Ed Golder said.
Opponents say it's already legal for farmers to shoot wolves preying on their animals, but a hunt would be premature.