The Michigan Legislature is moving closer to allowing a hunting season for gray wolves. The state Senate voted last week to make the wolf a game species. Now, the bill goes to the House.
There are around 700 wolves in Michigan, mostly in the western Upper Peninsula.
If the Legislature makes the wolf a game species, then wildlife officials will still have to justify that a hunt is necessary and that it won’t harm wolf recovery.
Under state law, there can’t be a recreational wolf hunt for any old reason.
Wildlife officials would have to show that a hunt is warranted and that it would meet the goal of reducing wolf-human conflicts.
Adam Bump is a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
"We’ve never had a wolf hunt in Michigan. We don’t know this is exactly what will happen if we do the following steps," Bump says.
DNR has a lot of information about wolf numbers, pack sizes and locations. Wildlife officials also track incidents when wolves attack and kill or wound livestock or pets.
That’s referred to as depredation.
But some question whether a hunt is the best way to deal with it.
Jimmie Mitchell is head of Natural Resources for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee.
"The tribes oppose the wolf hunt based on the absence of information related to wise management practices. We don’t know whether or not the amount of depredation events that are occurring are enough of a reason to initiate a hunt," says Mitchell.
Mitchell speaks on behalf of five tribes that are part of a legal agreement with the state over treaty hunting and fishing rights.
DNR will have to consult with them before a wolf hunt is approved, and if the tribes aren’t satisfied there’s a good reason for it, they have the option of going back to federal court.
Senator Tom Casperson from the Upper Peninsula sponsored the measure to classify wolves as a game animal. He recognizes that the state and private landowners have the authority now to kill wolves that are causing problems. But he says that still isn’t good enough to control the population.
"I think the hunting community plays a key role in helping us get there. And to exclude them from the process, I think is a mistake," he says.
Casperson is hearing from hunters who complain that wolves are killing too many deer, and he points to reports about wolves coming right into people’s backyards in the far western U.P.
He says it may make sense just to target a few counties there instead of a full blown hunt.
The Natural Resources Commission decides if there’s to be a hunt and what the rules will be, not the Legislature.
What researchers do know is that wolves will respond to any decrease in their numbers.
Wildlife biologist Rolf Peterson has studied wolf behavior on Isle Royale for more than 40 years. He says a public hunt could split the animals into smaller packs and actually increase reproduction.
"It’s sort of if you kill one wolf, two come to the funeral. I mean that’s just a common sense way of expressing the ability of wolves to respond to any sort of increase in mortality," says Peterson.
Peterson says a hunt designed to reduce conflicts with humans could work, depending on which wolves were killed and how many. But he thinks it would have to be in a very small area.
But Peterson says over the last decade, trained professionals have shown that they can move in quickly and get rid of problem animals.
"Wolf hunting by the public is not about solving problems, for the most part. It’s about people’s desire to kill wolves for whatever reason that might be," he says.
The law requires the DNR to manage according to the best science that is available to them. In this case, DNR biologist Adam Bump says, the agency doesn’t know for sure how even a targeted hunt would change pack behavior or solve conflicts with humans.
"We can look at a lot of those things. But some of those questions you’re just not going to have concrete, solid answers for before you move forward," says Bump.
If a public hunt is approved, he says, the DNR would monitor closely what happens and adapt to changes over time.