This week, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission is expected to vote on whether to authorize a wolf hunt.
The hunt would take place in three separate zones in the Upper Peninsula.
I traveled to the U.P. to talk with people who live near wolves to get their thoughts on the proposed hunt.
For many years, gray wolves were listed as an endangered species in Michigan. That ended last year. But the battle between the wolves and locals in the Upper Peninsula has been going on for some time.
Wendell Miller has dozens of animals on the farm that the three Miller brothers run near Engadine.
The farm’s open fields are hemmed in to the east and the west by densely wooded forests: ideal habitat for wolves. Miller says it was a decade ago that they lost their first calf to a wolf attack, just a few yards from the farm house.
“The calf was missing. The calf was gone. The only thing that was here was a little piece of the calf’s diaphragm. That’s how we knew it was a kill. The calf didn’t walk away. And they found the remains over there… that rock pile and apple tree. They set some traps but they never caught anything,” he says.
Since that first wolf kill, the Miller farm has implemented many non-lethal techniques to discourage wolves: from specially designed fences, to using a donkey to defend their sheep. Miller says they’ve also obtained state permits to shoot wolves. But the Miller farm continues to lose animals to wolf attacks.
The Department of Natural Resources estimates that there were 658 wolves prowling the Upper Peninsula this winter, down slightly from the year before.
Here's how the population of wolves has changed over time in Michigan:
State wildlife officials say a hunt would kill only 43 wolves. The hunting would be restricted to places where wolf attacks on livestock, hunting dogs and household pets have been a problem.
The proposed wolf hunt has its opponents. Native American tribes in Michigan uniformly oppose the hunt, as do national humane societies.
Nancy Warren is the Great Lakes Regional Director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition.
She’s worried a hunt will kill more than just 43 wolves, and may lead to more problems as young wolves - less experienced in hunting - turn even more to domesticated animals for food.
Warren’s not buying the reason given that the hunt will reduce the number of livestock and pets killed by wolves.
“We want to see the science to support why the need is there. We don’t feel the DNR has provided the data to support the need for a hunting season,” Warren says.
A lobbyist who represents the interests of many hunting groups in Michigan agrees the hunt is not really about science. Mike Thorman says the hunt is needed to address the concerns of people who feel the current management system has failed.
“They are getting fed up. They’re about ready to take matters into their own hands, which is not good for the wolf,” he says.
There is speculation that part of the reason why the wolf population may have plateaued in the U.P. is because of a rise in people illegally hunting wolves.
Jackie Winkowski has been raising sled dogs at her home in Gwinn, south of Marquette, for about 20 years. She says they’ve had a few wolves sniffing around the puppies on their property, but they’ve never had a problem.
Winkowski says what’s lost in the debate over the proposed hunt is that wolves are beneficial for the environment.
“But I think it would be tough to convince people who don’t want any around that that’s a valid issue,” she says.
The future of the gray wolf is not just an issue in Michigan. The federal government is mulling a proposal for a blanket delisting of wolves as a ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ species throughout the lower 48 states.
Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) says that people in Ironwood are living in fear of wolves. On Thursday's Environment Report, Steve checks out that claim.