Dana Nessel to review Michigan DNR handling of wolf kill records

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said it sought the shooting of protected gray wolves because they posed a danger to people. Internal records obtained by Bridge this year show that the agency mischaracterized a wolf incident in seeking to have the Ontonagon wolf pack shot. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Warren)

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is reviewing whether state officials improperly blocked or delayed the release of public records relating to their efforts to have protected gray wolves killed three years ago, her office told Bridge Magazine.

Nessel is responding to a recent Bridge investigation that detailed how the state Department of Natural Resources used Michigan’s weak public information laws to shield the agency from scrutiny over the 2016 shootings of three endangered gray wolves at an Upper Peninsula farm.

The DNR has long insisted the wolves posed a danger to humans, citing an incident in the spring of 2016 where a wolf from the Ontonagon pack raced past a DNR employee to kill a calf on the Dykstra beef farm. The wolf’s aggressive attack in a worker’s presence was enough to secure federal approval to shoot the wolves, under an exception to the U.S. Endangered Species Act. 

Bridge’s report showed that the state agency’s justification for the wolf kills was false. No wolf raced past a worker that day to kill a calf, as DNR internal emails and other documents secured by Bridge made clear.

Rather, internal documents and other public records secured by Bridge indicate the wolves were shot after they decimated herds of high-priced beef cattle at the Dykstra farm, costing the state tens of thousands of dollars in reimbursements.

The distinction matters because the Endangered Species Act allows the killing of federally protected animals if they pose a danger to people. But it forbids their killing for attacking livestock. Violators can face up to a year in jail

Following Bridge’s article Friday, Nessel said her office would examine the state’s actions in the handling of public records involving the wolves. Michigan has been rated among the least transparent states in the nation in providing access to records. 

 “The Attorney General will review the allegations in the story and investigate any credible claims that officials violated [Freedom of Information Act] or other laws,” spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney told Bridge. 

“I would say it’s an atypical situation and the AG is taking it seriously. It has her personal attention.” 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had a different reaction. “She trusts the DNR’s Wildlife Division’s ability to determine and evaluate wildlife threats to human safety,” spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in a statement to Bridge. 

The state estimates more than 600 gray wolves now roam the state’s Upper Peninsula. Their resurgence has created tensions between conservation groups and farmers and ranchers whose livestock are threatened by the predators. 

The Trump administration is currently considering whether to remove gray wolves from the list of protected animals under the Endangered Species Act in the Lower 48 states, which could impede their recovery of animals once on the verge of extinction.

About the author
John Barnes worked at The Grand Rapids Press and MLive.com for 33 years. He specialized in investigative journalism and most recently oversaw journalism  projects for MLive.com’s eight newspapers statewide. Barnes has reported extensively on gun rights, criminal justice, traffic safety, the outdoors and medical issues.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Kevin Clark
Mon, 11/25/2019 - 11:54pm

Thank you, AG Nessel for taking the MI DNR to task. For some reason of late, these wildlife “management” agencies are going rogue. No big surprise that the public is rapidly losing trust in their motives and confidence in their abilities to serve honorably. They must be held accountable.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 8:37am

Good job Bridge! Let us hope that she follows through. It would be great if she then followed up on the fallacies propagated by State legislators concerning the wolf issue, as well. Good place to start on cleaning the swamp -

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 8:53am

This rag is purely anti hunting and anti agriculture. Wolves have been many times past the recovered status in Michigan for many years yet the states can't manage even wolves that are killing livestock and pets let alone the burgeoning wolf numbers that are decimating wildlife populations in many areas. I will never contribute to a publication like this that publishes anti hunting dribble like this.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 9:14am

Can you imagine a subdivision moving in your hunting territory and expect them to just move along. Michigan is not over populated with wolves, and there are ways to manage them without slaughtering them into extinction.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 9:36am

Actually I think you meant drivel (look it up) rather than dribble. Apparently you sourced the MDNR for your "decimated" characterization. Wolves barely hang on living in the UP. I'm a UP native, have hunted there, love the area, and hope for a complete recovery of the wolf population.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 2:44pm

I live in the UP, and love the area too, George. And I love that there are wolves in the UP. But I disagree with the characterization that wolves "barely hang on" in the UP. Your hopes for a complete recovery have been realized, as there is a self-sustaining population here and has been for years. Every time we go camping or hiking, we see wolf sign (tracks and scat) and sometimes hear them howling. Occasionally we see one, but they are pretty adept at staying out of sight. I'm glad they are there, but they are by no means endangered. It's time to allow limited hunting to keep the population in check, since they have no other limits on their population and are killing pets and livestock.

Mon, 12/02/2019 - 9:51am

When someone resorts to pointing out typos in their rebuttal, you know they have a weak argument. To say that wolves are barely hanging on there is ludicrous. At 600-1,000 wolves, the U.P., wolf density is considered very high. Years ago they set a "recovery" goal of 200 wolves, which they have exceeded by many fold. I spend a lot of time in the U.P. and have encountered wolves dozens of times and have heard them howling hundreds of times. They are over populated now and causing a lot of problems in the U.P.

UP Loon
Tue, 11/26/2019 - 9:51am

Once again our Governor can't understand the issue. This is the AG looking into violations of state law regarding records and communication. The Governor comments on the issue of wildlife managers, and misses what the AG is doing.
What's with Whitmer?

Charlie Baloo
Tue, 11/26/2019 - 10:15am

As a realist I'm not surprised the DNR leadership is guilty of lies and cover up. I'm also not shocked to hear that the Governor will aide and abet them in service to herself. But noting a few rare heroes in this story, I want to thank John Barnes for showing why the hard work of investigative journalism is so important to a democracy and AG Dana Nessel for reminding us that some politicians are courageous enough to stand up against abuse of power and for the public good.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 12:30pm

If the DNR redefined reality and then did not release documents it should have released, that is indefensible. However, Nessel has already proven that she has no respect for the recommendations of the biologists and other professionals who are responsible for wildlife management in Michigan. She has gone against their recommendations and asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service not to remove wolves from protected status. What does Nessel know about wildlife management, predator-prey relationships, or, for that matter, the realities of trying to raise livestock in an area where wolves and cougars exist? Leave those decisions to the professionals. Unfortunately, I am afraid Nessel will use the DNR's lack of judgment in this matter as an excuse to impose her anti-hunting biases on the agency. Is it her job to investigate and deal with an agency's lack of transparency and poor judgment? Yes. But it is not her job to dictate wildlife management policy, which is what I believe she will do.

UP Loon
Tue, 11/26/2019 - 4:50pm

Actually AG Nessal may be closer to following the Michigan wolf management plan which was a consensus plan crafted by DNR, MUCC and other stakeholders over five years. The Snyder administration abandoned it completely. It is still a relevant management plan that deals less in human emotion than fact. The DNR management group acted like a rogue pack in the Dykstra farm issue, as Barnes' work shows. Instead of following a smart management plan this DNR is doing what it wants, when it wants, and fabricating its justification after. How the Governor can support these guys in this instance is awful.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 12:38pm

Thank you atty gen. Nessel! Please find a cold hard cell for Senator Casperson! And all the rest of those corrupt monsters. When you learn about wolves and how they live in family clans, just like Indians, and how they were hunted for their hair, just like Indians, and how they've had their land stolen, just like Indians, you'll have a whole new perspective. Know also that wolves can change the flow of rivers. They shipped some out to Calif. to help stop the washouts that go on out there. There are many informative videos on You Tube that tell the truth about wolves and how they help our environments. Check them out. Why are government people (DNR and Senators) always above the law?