A new effort to count Michigan’s gray wolves is proving tougher than normal as wildlife officials try to determine how the lack of state-sanctioned hunting has affected the controversial predators.
State lawmakers almost three years ago gave natural resources officials the ability to order hunts because of the rapid growth of gray wolves over three decades and reports of wolf attacks on livestock in the Upper Peninsula. But a federal judge’s decision in late 2014 to restore the endangered status of the wolves meant the state can no longer hold hunts.
Hunting supporters have feared the lack of sanctioned killings could lead to more growth in Michigan’s estimated 636 wolves and further attacks. But the state Department of Natural Resources reports the number of wolf attacks or killings of livestock — also known as “depredations” — has fallen to about 11 this year from the annual highs that ranged from 31 to 43 attacks from 2010 to 2012.
Michigan skipped its wolf count last year because of the federal action and cost concerns, but this year’s census started this week after an early lack of snow made it difficult to detect the predators’ tracks. Officials say the count will remain hard because two straight winters of more freezing temperatures and snow have depleted the number of deer.
“It’s not going to be easy this year because they are more spread out and deer have not migrated in many areas,” said Kevin Swanson, the DNR’s wolf specialist in Marquette.
A DNR spokesman said the tracking should be in full swing by January
A 45-day hunt in late 2013 — the first in Michigan in 40 years — resulted in 22 wolves being killed in the U.P., a little more than half of the state target of 43.
But Michigan voters in November 2014 rejected in two referendum votes the prior state laws that allowed the hunting of wolves. The Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder had signed into law a third measure that would still allow the wolf hunts despite the referenda losses.
In December 2014, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., restored the endangered status of the wolves — meaning none of them can be shot except when they pose a threat to human life.
Still, wildlife officials aren’t confident the number of wolves has risen.
On a recent trip to the field, Swanson was tracking the Strawberry Lake pack of wolves south of Marquette. Gray wolves were not found there two years ago, but researchers recently found the tracks of at least two wolves. Next they will look for the Arnold pack a bit to the south.
It’s “very hard’ to tell what the count be when it is finished, traditionally in April, Swanson said. But the number usually “depends on deer density,” and deer numbers are low from the harsh winters, he said.
The state’s last estimated wolf population is down from a high of 687 in 2012.
They had disappeared from Michigan and most other states when they were declared an endangered species in 1974. They started returning to the Upper Peninsula in the late 1980s and numbered 20 in 1992.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped federal protections from the gray wolves in 2012 and handed over management to the states.
Without state hunts, some Yoopers fear the wolves will grow bolder. In 2013, Duane Kolpack told The Detroit News he favored the wolf hunt because he had shot eight wolves and lost as many as 70 animals to them from his Greenland farm with cattle, sheep, goats and hogs.
“My wife chased one out of the barn,” Kolpack said. “It took a goat, and she chased it about half a mile down the road, but it never let go of the goat.”
This year, attacks are down in part because of the closure a single farm owned by John Koski that was the site of most attacks.
The DNR spent more than $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help Koski protect his cattle from wolves. It went for such measures as fencing and donkeys to mix with Koski's herd and keep wolves away. About $38,000 also was for reimbursement of lost cattle.
Brian Roell, a DNR wildlife biologist, says he knows of no recent wolf depredation around the farm near Ewen in Ontonagon County. “The pack has probably moved on,” Roell said.
A few years ago, Koski’s farm was littered with cattle carcasses. A decaying carcass lay in a shed, months after it died. Deer legs were strewn in a rusted pickup bed.
The farmer pleaded guilty to an animal cruelty charge. The 150 cattle have been shipped to Waukesha, Wisconsin.
When a reporter returned this fall, the 925-acre Koski property appeared serene. Hay grew where bones were scattered. Fresh gray strands of barbed wire were added to tangled rusting ones. One female cow remains, but the 70-year-old Koski said he is still trying to sell her after a buyer in September decided against the purchase.
Koski, who is unassuming and polite, with a thick Finnish accent, maintains he was a victim of rampant wolf predation on his non-residential farm 45 miles east of where he lives.
Nancy Warren, who lives near the Koski property and is the Great Lakes regional director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, contends the wolf numbers are down.
“We’re not seeing them like we used to see,” Warren said. “We’re not hearing them like we used to.”
She said the decline in the deer population and another factor may be involved.
“I also think there might be a lot of poaching going on,” Warren said.
John Barnes is a freelance reporter in west Michigan.