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Ballot questions not the final word on wolf hunting in Michigan

Oct 27, 2014

Michigan voters will get to weigh in on two laws that allowed wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula.

The Humane Society just started airing ads aimed at persuading voters in the closing days of the campaign season, but whether people vote “yes” or “no” on wolf hunting, the two ballot questions are not the final word on the issue.

That’s because the ballot campaign on its own will not determine the future of wolf hunting in Michigan.

In the last century, the gray wolf almost disappeared, having been hunted and trapped to the edge of extinction, but a long-term recovery effort is showing results. A few years ago, the federal government took the gray wolf off its list of Midwestern endangered species.

Wayne Pacelle, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Humane Society of the United States
Credit The HSUS

Like Wisconsin and Minnesota, Michigan quickly allowed wolf hunting, and groups like the Humane Society acted quickly in Michigan to oppose it.

“This is where the bullets are flying, so to speak,” says Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States.

“Wisconsin and Minnesota, which also have very aggressive hunting and trapping programs, don’t have the initiative and referendum process, so this will be the first place where wolf management, trophy hunting of wolves, is on the ballot.”

Hunters say wildlife management and hunting decisions don’t belong on the ballot.

The latest chapter in this fight started with a law adopted four years ago by the Legislature and Governor Rick Snyder to allow a gray wolf hunting season.

That law was suspended by a petition drive spearheaded by the Humane Society that put the question on the ballot. To get around that petition drive, the Legislature adopted a second law. That law drew a second petition challenge, which is also on the November ballot.

“The way the system in Michigan is set up right now, anybody with enough money can get on the ballot for any issue,” says Drew YoungDyke, with the pro-hunting coalition called the Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management. YoungDyke works for the influential Michigan United Conservation Clubs, a key key member of the group.

Our groups believe that the final decision about whether an animal should be game species, or whether it should be hunted, should be based on the recommendations of Michigan professional wildlife biologists. - Drew YoungDyke

YoungDyke says hunters were sick and tired of seeing wildlife management issues on the ballot, where more often than not they lose. Voters have been called upon over the years to decide whether hunting mourning doves should be allowed, whether bear hunters should be allowed to use dogs and bait, and who should make decisions about hunting seasons.

“Our groups believe that the final decision about whether an animal should be a game species, or whether it should be hunted, should be based on the recommendations of Michigan’s professional wildlife biologists,” he says.

“If it’s decided on the general statewide ballot, that’s not being decided by the biologists.” 

Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management launched its own petition drive.

It put the issue before the Legislature again, and the Legislature, for the third time, adopted a law to allow wolf hunting. This new law also puts the authority for future hunting decisions with appointed state wildlife officials. Their decisions – and this new law, which takes effect in March – cannot be challenged via a referendum - regardless of how the November election shakes out.  

Which makes the referendum campaign as much about the political maneuvering that took place to get a wolf hunting season as the issue itself.

“It’s also about this abuse of power by the Legislature. It’s an attempt to subvert a fair vote on this issue by the people of Michigan,” says the Humane Society’s Wayne Pacelle.

He says the Michigan Department of Resources and the appointed Natural Resources Commission are susceptible to political pressure.

The Humane Society and the Keep Michigan Wolves Protected campaign have committed $1.5 million to air ads between now and Election Day that accuses politicians of “crying wolf” and engineering a “Lansing power grab.”

"Keep Michigan Wolves Protected" rally at the Michigan state capitol.
Credit Keep Michigan Wolves Protected / Facebook

If the two referendum votes succeed in toppling the laws, the Keep Michigan Wolves Protected campaign’s next stop is court.

They hope a judge will rule the law is too broad, encompassing too many subjects, which could be a violation of the Michigan Constitution.

YoungDyke says the law is clearly constitutional.

The pro-hunting Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management is not committing major resources to the campaign, in large part because its petition-initiated law is unaffected by the ballot campaign and the results of the referendum election. 

So, next Tuesday, voters will get to have their say on the matter of wolf hunting.

But another question is whether their say will matter.