Living with Michigan's wolves

Feb 7, 2012

Gray wolves in the western Great Lakes were recently taken off the endangered species list. Now, the state of Michigan is responsible for managing the wolf population.

Michael Nelson is a professor of environmental ethics at Michigan State University. He’s an author of a new report on people’s attitudes about wolves in Michigan. His report is based on a statewide telephone survey conducted in 2010. 

Nelson says they asked people throughout the state how they felt about the following four statements (on a five point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree):

  1. "I enjoy knowing wolves exist in Michigan."
  2. "I would be likely to purchase a license to hunt or trap wolves."
  3. "The decision to hunt wolves should be made by public vote."
  4. "Wolves should only be hunted if biologists believe the wolf population can sustain a hunt."

Michael Nelson says overall, Michiganders tend to value wolves.

"Generally, we found out that people enjoy knowing there are wolves in Michigan. This varies from place to place. We also found out that in general, the people of Michigan really support wildlife biology, wildlife science as an important way to make decisions about wolves."

But he says people’s feelings about wolves change based on where they live in the state.

"I think we all realize that Michigan, like many other states, has different kinds of cultures within the state. And of course, we also know that people who live in wolf territories have different ideas than people who don’t, and people who live in rural areas have different ideas than people who live in urban areas. Generally, we found that there was less support for wolves in the U.P. as opposed to the Lower Peninsula. Overall, 82% of Michiganders enjoy knowing wolves exist in Michigan – that’s how we phrased that question. In the northern lower peninsula where there are wolves now, it was 82%, they were average as well. In the U.P. it was 61% of people who enjoyed knowing wolves existed in Michigan."

Should wolves be hunted?

Michigan’s wolf management plan does not call for a hunting season for wolves. The state legislature would have to decide that.

In the survey, 14% of people said they would be likely to purchase a license to hunt or trap wolves.  85% of people said they would not buy a license.  Here's an excerpt from the report analyzing the survey results:

U.P. residents were consistently different from the rest of the state, displaying the greatest support for a public vote to decide hunting (81%) and lowest wolf value (61%). They also showed the greatest interest in hunting or trapping wolves (55%).

Most of the wolves in the state live in the U.P.

Interlochen Public Radio's Bob Allen reported last July that illegal wolf kills were spiking in the Upper Peninsula. He reported that wildlife officials said they could defuse the situation if they could just get gray wolves removed from the endangered species list.

In the piece, we hear from the manager of the Hiawatha Sportsmen’s Club, Larry Livermore. He says in the U.P., people are increasingly convinced wolves are decimating the deer population.

“You have a whole bunch of honest, law abiding citizens who have finally had enough and say, you don’t care about us, you don’t understand our dilemma here and so we will take it into our own hands. And that’s happening. People who I never dreamed would say I would shoot a wolf are telling me that they will shoot one.”

So - some people in the U.P. were getting fed up and wanted to have more options to deal with wolves.  They wanted the state to manage wolves instead of the federal government.

The wolf attitude survey was done in 2010, well before the wolves were taken off the endangered species list. I asked Michael Nelson: How do you think people’s opinions might shift now that the wolves are off of the list?

"Oh, that’ll be the next great survey question. There’s really something important to discover. It was kind of fortuitous that we gave our survey just before the wolves came out, just before they made it to the Lower Peninsula. So a survey in a year or two could really reveal some interesting things."