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Michigan weighs criteria for wolf hunts if they're delisted as endangered

wolf in field
About 700 wolves live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. (Shutterstock)

Michigan should consider setting criteria for wolf hunts if the animals are no longer endangered, according to a new draft wolf management plan released Tuesday.

The 2022 Wolf Management Plan draft will guide the Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Commission’s policy on Michigan’s wolves, including potential hunts. Finalizing the document is one of three steps the DNR will take before considering a hunting season.

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The plan would also inform the NRC if it decided to establish a wolf hunt, said Tom Baird, the chair of the body of nine appointed citizens who pass state hunting and fishing regulations.

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However, establishing a wolf hunt is not on the “front burner for us,” Baird said. 

Contention surrounding the possibility of a wolf hunting and trapping season in Michigan was stopped in its tracks when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services re-classified the animal as an endangered species in February.

There are about 700 wolves in Michigan, and all but a few stragglers are contained to the Upper Peninsula, where the DNR used to give permits to farmers to kill wolves that preyed on their livestock.

Proponents of killing wolves see hunting and trapping as a means of controlling the population and reducing human-animal conflicts. Opponents of wolf hunts believe the animal will be hunted down to levels that threaten its viability.

Under state law, the NRC establishes the first hunting and trapping season as well as the manners and methods the animals are killed. Following the first season, Baird said the DNR director decides the next season. 

Beyond approving the updated wolf management plan, the DNR won’t consider a wolf season until it consults with the state’s tribal nations and the federal government delists the animal as endangered. The NRC also won’t consider a hunt until wolves are delisted, Baird said.

The DNR updates its plan about every five years and this one focuses on scientific research and a survey of Michigan residents’ attitudes towards wolves, said Brian Roell, a DNR wildlife biologist and wolf specialist.

The plan has four goals: keeping Michigan’s wolf population above a threatened or endangered level; facilitate wolf-related benefits; minimize wolf-related conflicts; and conduct science-based wolf management with socially responsible methods.

“The plan is very comprehensive, but the real contentious point is do you hunt these animals? That is really the pinch point in this plan,” Roell said.

Roell said the plan would allow two methods of killing wolves that the NRC can consider in the future.

One is focused on reducing wolf conflicts, mainly negative interactions farmers have with wolves preying on livestock like chickens and cows, a method Roell said the DNR has recommended in the past. In 2013, the agency permitted some farmers to hunt wolves as a means of protecting livestock depredation.

The plan states that more than 1,000 livestock farms are in the UP, and from 1998 through 2021, the DNR and U.S. Wildlife Services verified 320 wolf attacks against livestock on 10 percent of those farms.

The plan lists how to determine whether the livestock depredation is a localized issue, with Roell saying the “idea is you really can’t say you want to hunt wolves across the Upper Peninsula to lower livestock depredation because that can be caused by a localized pack.”

The other form of hunting is purely recreational, Roell said. In that case, the DNR would evaluate the potential biological impacts to establish harvest criteria it would recommend to the NRC. 

Mainly, Roell said, the DNR would have to determine how many wolves could be killed without threatening the viability of the population.

Part of establishing a wolf kill limit would be surveying residents to see if there is public demand for an acceptable reduction of the population, which Roell notes is a “balancing act because we’re managing these wolves for everybody in the state.”

The DNR sent out 62,000 surveys. With a 20-percent response rate, most people surveyed said they have a positive attitude towards wolves.

Eighty percent of respondents believe wolves have a right to exist in Michigan. Roell said this view is mainly expressed by residents in the southern Lower Peninsula, while residents in the Upper Peninsula do want some population control.

“There is a very small dynamic that is completely intolerant of wolves,” Roell said.

Nancy Warren, executive director at the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, said she is pleased with the state’s plan because scientific research is at the cornerstone of the update.

However, Warren said she still has issues with the DNR’s approaches to hunting wolves if a season is decided on in the future. One sticking point, she said, is whether the DNR would support killing wolves that attack free-ranging hunting dogs.

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“There is an inherent risk of releasing dogs into known wolf territories,” Warren said, noting that the DNR updates its website of known wolf-dog conflicts dating back 10 years.

The Michigan United Conservation Club has pushed for a wolf hunting and trapping season for decades, said Nick Green, the organization’s director of communications.

“We believe the best way to deal with the overabundance of wolves in the Upper Peninsula is to let humans try and manage the species with hunting and trapping, as we do for any other species,” Green said.

The deadline for public comments on the plan is August 4. After receiving comments, the DNR will make changes and send it to the director for approval.

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