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Gray wolves, now off endangered list, may be targeted by Michigan farmers

The Trump administration has announced plans to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list, stripping the animals of federal protections and handing control over to states including Michigan, where nearly 700 wolves roam the Upper Peninsula.

 

In a decision likely to prompt lawsuits, and may well lead to more shootings of wolves to protect livestock, Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt last week called the “delisting” of gray wolves evidence of the wolves’ successful recovery that showed the Trump administration’s “commitment to species conservation based on the parameters of the law and the best scientific and commercial data available.”

Related: Lawsuit: Michigan wolf advisory group stacked with hunting advocates

Wolf advocates, meanwhile, decried the decision as a political move that will hinder wolf recovery in the Great Lakes region and elsewhere.

Barring legal holdups, the federal delisting will take effect in January, handing over management of Michigan’s estimated 695 wolves to state wildlife officials and tribes. The handoff is welcome news for Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, agency spokesman Ed Golder said. 

“It’s something we’ve supported for many years,” Golder said, noting that wolves met Michigan’s recovery threshold more than a decade ago. 

Golder said Michigan is well-prepared to manage wolves on its own. But wolf advocates in Michigan and beyond warned that a federal delisting will open the door to more wolf killing in Michigan and elsewhere, causing the animals to backslide in their recovery.

“The threats that caused wolves to become endangered still exist,” said Nancy Warren, executive director of the group National Wolfwatcher Coalition. She decried the delisting as “wolf management based on politics, not science.”

If the delisting sticks, here’s what it will mean for Michigan: 

More legal leeway to kill wolves

Once present in all areas of Michigan, wolves had disappeared from the state by the mid-1930s amid widespread hunting that pushed the animals to the brink of extinction. Since returning to Michigan 1988, wolves have made a comeback. As of last winter, Michigan was home to at least least 695 wolves, all of them in the Upper Peninsula. 

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With few exceptions, it’s illegal to kill species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. That means you can’t kill wolves, except in defense of human lives. 

But state wildlife officials have been caught defying that law. Earlier this year, Bridge Michigan uncovered emails showing that state officials falsely claimed wolves were endangering human lives to justify killing three wolves in 2016. 

Some in Michigan, particularly farmers, ranchers and politicians in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, have criticized the existing prohibition on wolf kills as too strict. They argue they should be able to shoot wolves that pose a threat to their dogs or livestock. 

If Michigan retains management control, state law would give them some limited clearance to do so.

The state’s wolf management plan guides state oversight of Michigan’s wolves. Michigan’s plan envisions killing wolves as one possible option to protect livestock and dogs — but only under narrow circumstances. 

Once Michigan assumes control of the wolf population, it will be legal for a livestock or dog owner to kill a wolf that’s in the act of killing their animal “if deemed necessary.” It would remain illegal to kill wolves under other circumstances, and Golder said state wildlife officials will aggressively pursue poachers. Just this year, the agency snagged Michigan’s worst suspected wolf poacher in history.

“Our law enforcement people will continue to enforce the law,” he said.

No wolf hunting, at least for now

Michigan’s wolf management plan contemplates the possibility of a recreational wolf hunt in Michigan, but Golder said Michigan won’t be hosting a hunt anytime soon.

“Before a wolf hunt should even be considered, several things should take place,” he said. 

Among them: The legal status of wolves should be more permanently settled, he said. Any lawsuit against the federal delisting would delay serious consideration of a hunt in Michigan.

In addition, Golder said, Michigan needs to update its wolf management plan next year before considering a hunt. And DNR would need to consult with leaders of Michigan’s Native American tribes, he said. 

Michigan has allowed a wolf hunt before. After the U.S. Interior Department delisted wolves in 2011 (a decision later overturned by a federal judge), Michigan sanctioned a 2013 hunting season in parts of the U.P. 

Rep. Greg Markannen, R-Hancock, sponsored a House resolution last year urging the federal government to strip wolves of their federal protections. In a phone call with Bridge, Markannen said he hopes to again see a wolf hunt in Michigan.

“I trust the DNR to work with community groups and the Native American groups to set a reasonable limit and to manage (a wolf hunt) with scientific techniques and scientific data,” Markannen said.

But Warren, of the Wolfwatcher Coalition, contended there is “no scientific need” to hunt wolves, and doing so could cause the animals to backpedal in their recovery.

If wolf numbers change, Michigan’s plan may shift too  

Management decisions outlined in Michigan’s wolf plan are not tied to specific population thresholds, with one notable exception: If Michigan’s wolf population drops below 200, the plan envisions re-listing them on the state endangered or threatened list.

But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Michigan’s wolf count has stayed steadily above 600 for the past decade, leading state wildlife officials to the conclusion that the animals have reached their carrying capacity in the U.P. That means Michigan’s wolf population is likely as large as their Upper Peninsula habitat can support, and their numbers won’t increase unless they expand into the Lower Peninsula.

Golder said the state remains committed to managing a sustainable population, which means keeping wolf numbers above the recovery threshold.

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