MARQUETTE - The state Senate Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee passed legislation to the full Senate on a 5-2 vote Thursday that could counter efforts by animal rights activists and others to block a potential Michigan wolf hunt.
In December, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill into law that reclassified gray wolves as a game species and authorized a wolf hunt. The Michigan Natural Resources Commission - which would set provisions for a hunt - is considering whether to establish a limited fall harvest of 47 animals from three wolf management zones in the Upper Peninsula, based on a Michigan Department of Natural Resources recommendation.
The commission could decide whether to adopt the recommendation next month.
Meanwhile, state election officials are working to determine whether enough valid petition signatures were submitted recently to put the question of whether to repeal the wolf hunt law on the statewide November 2014 election ballot. If enough signatures are valid, a wolf hunt could not be held until after the election.
On Tuesday, state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, introduced Senate bills 288 and 289. Casperson said the bills build on Proposal G, which was a 1996 voter referendum that gave the Michigan Natural Resources Commission the authority to regulate game based on sound scientific management.
"Management of wildlife is an issue that constituents routinely raise as one of great concern for economic, recreational and social reasons," Casperson said. "In 1996, the voters wisely decided that they wanted the NRC to regulate the taking of game based on science and, from what I continue to hear, especially lately, the belief that we need to manage game scientifically is even more strongly held today. The proposed legislation looks to maintain and build upon that objective while ensuring that management (of game and fish) by hunting and fishing is preserved for the future."
Senate Bill 288 allows only the state Legislature to remove a species from the list of state game species. The NRC and Legislature would be able to add species to the list of game and establish hunting seasons.
Under Casperson's bill, if voters nullify the law that placed the wolf on the game species list, the NRC could return the wolf to the list and only lawmakers could take it off.
"My bill, if this passes, goes at it a different way," Casperson said. "We're trying to address this thing, that the ballot initiative takes away the will of the people."
Casperson said voters gave the NRC the authority to regulate game. He said well-funded special interest groups - like the Humane Society of the United States behind the wolf hunt referendum - are trying to overturn that vote and are not only trying to stop hunting of wolves, but hunting altogether.
"I would encourage people to look at who is spending the money and what the message is," Casperson said.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the bill could allow the NRC to reverse a 2006 statewide vote that prevented hunting of mourning doves.
A $1 million appropriation is included in the bill for the current fiscal year to "implement management practices for fish and game animals and perform research, education and outreach related to hunting, fishing, game animals, predators and prey."
Any money left from the allocation at the end of the fiscal year would not lapse to the state general fund, but would be carried forward in a work project account.
Opponents of the wolf hunt claim Casperson intentionally included the appropriation in his new bill to prevent the bill from potential overturn by voters. Under state law, appropriations bills are not subject to a referendum.
Casperson said he is aware the provision would make it more difficult for opponents.
Wolf hunt opponents accused Casperson of trying to subvert majority rule.
"This is an unprecedented power grab," said Jill Fritz, director of a coalition called Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, the group organizing the wolf hunt referendum.
Casperson aide Marty Fittante said the bills won't stop the referendum.
"This legislation will simply put in place a sound wildlife management policy which is consistent with the overwhelming public support that Proposal G received, regardless of the outcome of the referendum on wolf hunting," Fittante said.
Senate Bill 288 also provides active military service members who are Michigan residents to obtain a hunting license free of charge.
In addition, the bill allows the NRC to regulate the taking of fish, as it does the taking of game, "to the greatest extent practicable," using "sound scientific management in making decisions." The commission would issue orders after a public meeting and taking public input.
No less than 30 days before issuing an order, copies would be provided to Senate and House standing committees that consider legislation on conservation, the environment, natural resources, recreation, tourism and agriculture; heads of the Senate and House appropriations committees and appropriations subcommittee members who consider the budget of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
A Casperson amendment was approved Thursday that ensured the NRC could not add domestic dogs, cats or horses to the list of Michigan game species, a move intended to counter claims by opponents.
Senate Bill 289 would "protect the people's right to hunt and fish."
Within the legislation, "the Legislature declares that hunting, fishing and the taking of game are a valued part of the cultural heritage of this state and should be forever preserved."
The Legislature also declares in the bill that "these activities play an important part in the state's economy and in the conservation, preservation and management of the state's natural resources. Therefore, the Legislature declares that the citizens of this state have a right to hunt, fish and take game," subject to regulations and restrictions.
At the 90-minute committee hearing Thursday, which Casperson chaired, testimony was taken from 19 people and 28 others filled out cards, but did not testify. The majority of those people opposed Casperson's bills. The vote to move the legislation to the full Senate saw Democrats dissenting and Republican committee members approving the measures.
Casperson said the full Senate will likely vote on his bills over the next few days.
"My hope will be that we get to move something by the end of next week," Casperson said.