LANSING — The late 2014 return of the gray wolf to endangered status in the Great Lakes area may be short-lived if a bipartisan bill passes Congress.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Wisconsin Rep. Reid Ribble, would remove federal protection from the species in four states: Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Still in draft stages, the bill would turn over management of the gray wolf to those state governments.
The species has seen a lot of controversy in past years, with numerous attempts to delist the wolves from federal protection, and heavy debate between both sides.
Hunting supporters say populations have met recovery quotas and that this growing population threatens pets and livestock, and conflict with humans has been rising. Opponents say the population has not returned to its full historical range, and that overaggressive maintenance could irreparably harm the species. “They’re not threatened, they’re recovered,” said Drew YoungeDyke, public relations manager of the pro-hunt group Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “There’s really no business for them to be on the endangered species list.”
The species exceeded population quotas in Michigan and surrounding states set by the federal government, according to YoungeDyke, which led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife services choosing to delist the gray wolf in the Great Lakes region in 2012.
After being delisted, a small hunt took place in 2013 to manage the species in critical Michigan areas, with other Great Lakes states holding larger hunts.
Following that, the state legislature moved in 2012 to designate the wolf as a game species.
This was met with harsh backlash from animal rights groups, including Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, which collected enough signatures for the law to be put on the November 2014 ballot with a veto referendum.
A second attempt by the state at similar legislation also garnered a referendum, and both were rejected by Michigan voters. “We were victorious for the wolves,” said Jill Fritz, Director of the Keep Michigan Wolves Protected campaign.
State Sen. Tom Casperson, a Republican representing most of the Upper Peninsula, said many of these votes came from areas such as Southeast Michigan, where wolves aren’t present. “If people [in those areas] are going to worry about coyotes running around, and worry about their kids playing in the backyard, or stray dogs, rabid dogs, why can’t the Upper Peninsula have the same concern about their kids, playing in the backyard?” Casperson said.
A counter-initiative filed by pro-hunting groups was made moot when U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ordered the species returned to endangered status.
In her ruling, Howell cited the delisting as a violation of the Endangered Species Act, and wrote that defendants failed to prove that management of the species would be adequate and responsible. “Now Congress is challenging that [ruling] and trying to place wolves back under that irresponsible state management,” Fritz said.
The tentative bill, also supported by U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, a Republican who represents the entire Upper Peninsula and much of the northern Lower Peninsula, would employ legislative language and methods used to delist the species in the Rocky Mountains region back in 2008.
Casperson said, “There’s just too many of them. It’s not about not having wolves, its about having too many of them in our area.”
The wolf population has grown substantially in past decades, from as few as six wolves living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, to a population now approaching 700. According to Fritz, however, this is not enough to justify hunting. “Even after four decades of protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, there are fewer than 650 wolves in the entire state,” Fritz said. “Michigan politicians rushed to open a trophy hunting season for wolves, opening the door for the same practices that virtually wiped out the wolf population in the first place.”
YoungeDyke says wolf hunts are not solely about trophies, but about population control and maintenance. “With hunting, wolves learn to associate humans with danger,” he said. “Hunting is not an end-all, be-all. It’s a management tool.”
Many biologists have said the species naturally fears humans and usually will not attack, unless in cases of mental illness or extreme starvation.
But habituation, or the process in which wolves begin to hang around human communities due to being fed or finding more reliable food sources, has been shown to increase these odds. “Wherever wildlife and people overlap, flashpoints for conflict can be created,” said Meredith Gore, an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
YoungeDyke cited methods such as flagging, radio collars, and low hunting quotas as measures available to the state in controlling gray wolf populations.
During Michigan’s 2013 hunt, the state set a low kill quota of 43, and methods such as trapping were not permitted. Compared with quotas from 2013 hunts in other states– as high as 251 in Wisconsin– YoungeDyke says Michigan approached the hunt conservatively.
Supporters of the federal legislation cite attacks on pets and livestock, as well as increasing conflicts with humans, as reasons the population needs to be controlled. However, anti-hunting advocates disagree. “There is no way of knowing whether the wolves being killed in those hunting seasons ever had anything to do with livestock conflicts,” Fritz said. “You’re just killing the first wolves you see.”
One solution Fritz suggests is listing the species as threatened, rather than endangered. This would prevent recreational hunting, but allow more management of the species by state government.
In late January, the Humane Society of the United States, along with other organizations, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to reclassify the species as threatened. “A threatened listing would permit the Fish and Wildlife Service some regulatory flexibility to work with state and local wildlife managers to appropriately address wolf conflicts, including the depredation of livestock,” Fritz said.