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Michigan wildlife official cries wolf. Gray wolf advocates want him gone.

wolf
Michigan regulators are preparing to decide whether the state will hold a wolf hunt, after the animals were removed from the federal endangered species list last year. The looming decision has wolf foes and friends locked in heated debate. (Shutterstock)

If a dog disappears from a U.P. porch and nobody finds a body, is it fair to claim wolves killed it? 

That’s the question at the center of the latest volley in Michigan’s wolf wars, after a member of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission this month resurfaced a decade-old case of a missing dog in the western Upper Peninsula, claiming, without evidence, that a wolf snatched the animal from its chain on the owner’s porch.

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Citing a pattern of dishonesty designed to tip the scales in favor of once again approving wolf hunts now that the animals are off the federal endangered species list, Michigan wolf advocates are calling upon the commissioner, James “JR” Richardson, to resign and apologize.

Richardson, an advocate of wolf hunting, made the comments while appearing alongside Department of Natural Resources staff Nov. 4 on “Ask the DNR,” a public access TV show in which agency officials answer audience questions about fish and wildlife issues.

When a viewer called in claiming to have lost two dogs to wolves, Richardson replied: “You know I work in L’Anse Michigan, and we had one that a wolf had taken a dog off a chain on a porch, and I understand how that feels.”

But neither local law enforcement agencies near the village nor the Michigan Department of Natural Resources have any evidence to suggest that happened. 

“If something like that happens, usually the whole town knows about it,” Officer Fabian Kristo of the L’Anse Police Department told Bridge Michigan. “It’s a small town, you know?”

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Officer Will Jondreau of the Baraga County Sheriff’s Office said that agency has received no recent reports of wolf attacks, either. Same goes for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Tribal Police.

And DNR records show there have been no confirmed wolf attacks in all of Baraga County since 2019, when wolves injured two hunting dogs.

During his televised comments, Richardson, a Republican from Ontonagon, did not say when the alleged attack happened. He did not return phone calls from Bridge Michigan Monday seeking more clarity. 

But DNR spokesperson Ed Golder said Richardson was referencing a 2010 report of a missing dog in L’Anse. DNR officials who investigated that report found no evidence to suggest how the dog disappeared.

In a letter Saturday to Natural Resources Commission Chair Carol Rose, National Wolfwatcher Coalition Executive Director Nancy Warren called for Richardson to be “held accountable for misleading the public” by issuing a public apology and resigning from the commission.

“It's a total pattern of this commissioner to just ignore the science and then mislead the public,” Warren, who supports protections for the state’s roughly 700 gray wolves, told Bridge Michigan on Monday. 

In a text to Bridge, Rose said Warren and Richardson “have known each other for nearly 40 years and have a good sense of where each stands on the … subject of wolves in our UP.”

It’s not the first time unverified accounts of wolf attacks have played a central role in Michigan’s wolf debate, nor the first time Richardson has taken heat for his actions surrounding wolves. 

In 2013, then-state Sen. Tom Casperson issued a public apology for an inaccurate account suggesting wolves threatened children in a resolution that called upon Congress to remove gray wolves from the federal endangered species list. 

That same year, while serving as the Natural Resources Commission chair, Richardson admitted to deleting thousands of public comments opposing a wolf hunt, after first claiming to have forwarded the emails to the commission.

And in 2016, DNR officials killed three wolves in Ontonagon, claiming the animals posed a danger to humans. Reporter John Barnes later obtained documents the DNR had suppressed, which indicated the wolves were instead killed because they were eating a rancher’s cattle — a violation of the Endangered Species Act’s prohibition on killing endangered wolves for attacking livestock.

Attacks on dogs and livestocks were among the reasons state commissioners in 2013 authorized a wolf hunt during a brief window in which the animals were removed from the federal endangered species list. And indeed, wolf attacks do happen.

DNR records blame wolves for six instances of confirmed livestock kills last year, and five instances of dog kills. The DNR says there has never been a documented wolf attack on a human in Michigan.

Dog attacks typically involve hunting hounds that are trained to run off-leash in the woods pursuing wild animals that, like wolves, are drawn to the bait piles hunters leave out to attract bears.

Mike Thorman, legislative advisor with the Michigan Hunting Dog Federation and a member of the Michigan Wolf Management Advisory Council, said DNR statistics on dog attacks may be an undercount.

“A lot of times, there’s no evidence,” he said. “You let your hunting dog go, and there’s no … what happened to it? Where did it go?”

He said such disappearances have grown more common as the U.P.’s wolf pack has grown. 

“I don’t go up there anymore, just because of that,” Thorman said. 

Richardson’s comments come as the Natural Resources Commission prepares to again consider whether Michigan should hunt gray wolves — a decision made possible because the federal government last year removed the animals from the endangered species list.

Wolf hunt supporters argue the top predators are killing too many U.P. deer. Some ranchers favor hunting as a way to protect their herds from wolf attacks. And others share tales like Richardson’s, about wolves menacing people and pets.

But experts blame harsh winters, not wolves, for declines in the U.P.’s deer herd. And wolf advocates note that many reported close encounters between wolves and pets or humans have turned out to be tall tales. 

“The stories just get more and more embellished with each telling,” Warren said. 

Richardson’s term on the Natural Resources Commission, which regulates hunting and fishing in Michigan, ends in December. The group has no plans to vote on a possible wolf hunt before then. 

But Warren said she is pushing for his resignation because she fears he’ll be reappointed, and she doesn’t believe he can impartially consider whether Michigan should hunt wolves.

Spokespeople from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office did not respond to a question from Bridge about whether the governor intends to appoint Richardson for another term.

The Richardson controversy is just the latest in a wolf debate that has been contentious for years. Another wolf advocacy group is suing the DNR, alleging it packed the Wolf Management Advisory Council with people who favor a hunt. Meanwhile the Republican-led Michigan Senate passed a bill along party lines calling for a Yoopers-only council. 

The committee is expected to make recommendations in the coming months about how Michigan should manage its wolves. The Natural Resources Commission holds the authority to decide whether or not to hold a hunt, and Rose said commissioners will be “having the wolf conversation when the time is appropriate.”

Rose indicated she’s likely to support a hunt.

“Bottom line,” Rose said, “is that any species which has exceeded its original population recovery goal by nearly four-fold and has a profound effect on populations of other priority wildlife species merits management in accordance with the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation.” 

DNR staff, meanwhile, wants to table any discussion of a hunt until the animals’ federal legal status is clearer. Several national environmental groups have sued the federal government over its delisting decision, meaning a federal judge may have the ultimate say in Michigan’s great wolf debate.

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