MARQUETTE - Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials said a ballot referendum opposing a wolf hunt is "premature and ill-advised," urging proponents and opponents to allow the state's wolf management plan to work.
"There are those on one side that say we need to have recreational hunting and we need it everywhere and we need it right now," said DNR Wildlife Division Chief Russ Mason. "Then on the other side, we have people who say, 'Oh we can't possibly hunt wolves.'"
In January 2012, gray wolves were taken off the federal endangered species list, allowing Michigan to manage wolves via its wolf management plan. That document was created over several months, with input from a wide array of representatives, including animal welfare groups, hunters and trappers and Native American tribes.
The recommendations in the plan were all by consensus, Mason said.
"One of those things in the plan is to consider to have available as a tool a wolf hunt to resolve conflict. Everybody agreed that that was a reasonable tool," Mason said. "My argument would be, we have crafted this plan with input from both sides, let's stay that course and not let either side challenge us. Remember, the species was delisted because we had this wonderful plan and already both sides - both sides - are trying to pull away from what we agreed to when the animal was delisted."
Last month, the state Legislature passed a law which reclassifies wolves as game species, authorizes establishment of the first open season for wolf and allows the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to issue orders establishing wolf hunting seasons throughout the state. The NRC would also dictate methods of take, bag limits and other provisions of wolf hunting or trapping seasons. In 1996, Proposal G - which passed with 69 percent voter approval - gives exclusive authority to the NRC to regulate the taking of game.
The new wolf hunt law establishes a Wolf Advisory Council, which will include representatives from the DNR, tribal government, agricultural interests and conservation, animal advocacy and hunting organizations. The council will report annually to the NRC and the legislature, making non-binding recommendations on proper management of wolves.
Meanwhile, a coalition of animal welfare, conservation groups and Native American tribes called Keep Michigan Wolves Protected is hoping to reverse the provisions of the law and has launched a referendum campaign. The group needs to gather 225,000 signatures to put the issue on the November 2014 ballot.
The coalition said it has so far received endorsements from about 20 downstate non-profit organizations ranging from the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter and the Michigan Animal Rescue Network to the Humane Society of the United States - which intends to file a lawsuit to try to stop a Michigan wolf hunt.
"So I would actually say that those who want this big recreational hunt or those on the other side that say couldn't possibly be hunted are guilty of the same sin as we move forward and that they frankly should just get back in line and let's see where this process goes," Mason said. "We haven't said we're having a wolf hunt. We're saying that we're talking about the possibility, which is a whole lot more tenuous than saying we're doing anything."
DNR Director Keith Creagh said, "I'd say it's premature and ill-advised at this point in time to look at a ballot referendum."
Creagh outlined several steps the DNR will take over the next six months:
Mason made a presentation to the NRC, laying out a framework of data and background information
Population surveys are currently ongoing to determine pack size, location and health
Review lethal and non-lethal methods that have been employed in and around livestock producers and towns and cities
Consider questions like whether deer feeding bans should be put in place in municipalities to prevent drawing wolves into towns
Initiate government-to-government discussions with Native American tribes, understanding that wolves have a unique and special place within tribal culture
After information is gathered, public discussions will take place, based on what's been learned
Schedule additional discussions with the Wolf Management Advisory Council, which will make recommendations to the NRC
"The Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Commission certainly is steeped in scientific game management," Creagh said. "We fundamentally disagree with using ballot referenda to manage any species in the state."
Creagh said the NRC would likely only allow a limited hunt of wolves in certain areas of the Upper Peninsula where wolf populations are causing problems.
"What we're attempting to (do) in this case is resolve human, livestock, wolf conflict in a targeted and deliberative manner. In other words, using hunters as a resource to reduce that conflict," Creagh said. "It's no secret to anyone we're using U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services right now to shoot wolves and so there are wolves being shot as we speak. And so the question is: Is there a mechanism to pay respect to the species, reduce utilizing USDA Wildlife Services, and then in a thoughtful and deliberative manner, use hunters as part of that tool in the tool kit?"
Mason said, "The data are pretty clear that there's a reasonably strong relationship between the overall density of wolves and the likelihood of depredation events occurring. So it's reasonable to consider the possibility anyway that if you reduce that density you would reduce the need for targeted removals of animals."
And it would also, in all likelihood, make non-lethal measures more effective than it would have been otherwise, Mason said.
Mason said Gogebic County arguably has the highest density of wolves of anywhere in the lower 48 states.
"There's no question about population viability, there's no question about population growth," Mason said. "This is about the potential of considering a resolution of conflicts that we see occurring in the western U.P. We have consistently said that we would consider the possibility of a hunt to resolve conflict...not recreational hunting any old place."
Creagh said, "We worked very hard to have the wolf delisted off the Endangered Species List, by supporting methods and methodologies that increased the population. If we did anything at this point in time to put them back in the Endangered Species List, that means that we failed at what we initially attempted to accomplish."
Mason said, "We have every intention of having wolves be one of those things that makes the U.P. special. It is. It's a wonderful thing. It's very cool. At the same time, there's no reason that wolves can't be managed like any other species in North America."