Wolf hunting might be returning to Michigan as early as late this fall — a prospect bringing swift condemnation from animal advocates who want to keep the state’s gray wolves on the endangered species list.
The proposed removal of wolves from an endangered designation has been approved by the House Appropriations committee and is expected to pass the Republican-led House, the GOP-controlled Senate and eventually be signed by President Trump as part of the larger federal budget.
At least one environmental legal expert said Tuesday the appropriations bill language would trump a Tuesday ruling by a panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., that found a federal agency displayed “unreasoned, arbitrary, and capricious decision-making” when it removed endangered species protections for gray wolves. The congressional spending bill would prohibit the U.S. Interior Department from using federal funding to put wolves on the endangered species list.
“As a practical matter, the appropriations bill would prohibit the government from complying with the appeals court order and would prevent the federal government from enforcing the Endangered Species Act’s provision relating to agency rules for the fiscal year,” said Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Adler, who specializes in environmental issues and edited a book on the endangered species law.
But if Congress failed to renew the appropriations prohibition in any year, the court order would restore federal protections for the gray wolves, Adler said Tuesday.
Since more than an estimated 610 wolves live in the Upper Peninsula, state Department of Natural Resources officials are advocating — when allowed — a controlled hunt as well as awarding owners of livestock the right to kill a wolf that threatens their animals.
Controlled hunting supporters say it is needed because the wolf population is vibrant enough and that owners of livestock and pets need to be able to protect them from attacks.
“They are not an endangered species,” said Kevin Swanson, the wildlife management specialist for bear and wolf programs for the DNR. “... We’ve got many wonderful scientists that are very capable of managing wolves the right way, whether that’d be through a hunting season or a trapping.”
Swanson cautioned, though, that hunting or trapping has not been decided.
Anti-hunting advocates say the threats posed by wolves are often exaggerated and any hunting would be detrimental to an already fragile populace. They also note Michigan voters approved two 2014 referenda proposals to ban wolf hunting.
“We feel like this is a really bad deal for wildlife. As far as the people of Michigan go, the people already overwhelmingly voted to protect the Great Lakes wolves,” said Lydia Sattler, the Michigan state director of the Humane Society.
But Gov. Rick Snyder and the state Legislature effectively struck down the two anti-hunting referenda by approving a hunting law in 2016. The Legislature put a $1 million appropriation for a mobile barrier against invasive Asian carp into the bill, making it immune from a referendum under the Michigan Constitution.
“There’s just a danger if you remove the core protections of the recovering gray wolf population. ... We could be potentially hurting the recovery of the wolves species by opening up a hunt,” Sattler said. “There are so many scientific-based reasons, not just emotional. There are many scientists who have signed on to protecting the recovery of wolves.”
Michigan gray wolves were given legal protection in 1965, and there were only six to eight wolves in the state in the 1970s and 1980s.
But Swanson said there has since been a “very pronounced increase” of wolves in the U.P., surpassing the 200 mark in the early 2000s and exceeding 600 after 2010, according to state estimates.
The number of wolves spiked after “making their way back from that core population in Minnesota to Wisconsin and began to populate the U.P. in the early 1990s,” he said.
Every county in the U.P. has at least one pack of wolves, he said, “so we’ve got wolves everywhere on the landscape now throughout the U.P.”
A hunt in Michigan was held in 2013 after the endangered species designation was removed by the federal government in 2011.
But in late 2014, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prematurely removed federal protections from wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. On Tuesday, a three-judge appeals panel upheld the judge’s decision and said the government hadn’t reasonably considered factors including loss of the wolf’s historical range.
Wolves had nearly disappeared from the region when they were designated as endangered in the 1970s. They now total about 3,800.
The DNR does a survey every two years to determine how many wolves reside in the state, primarily in the Upper Peninsula. Only a couple of wolves have been spotted in the northern lower peninsula, officials said.
In a 2015 wolf management report, the DNR and other experts decided 200 or more wolves would be a “viable” or sustainable population in Michigan.
But others such as John Vucetich caution against exaggerating the predators’ threat to livestock and humans. The professor at the school of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Technological University testified before the U.S. Senate’s committee on environment and public works in July to urge that the wolves stay on the endangered species list.
Unlike states like Wisconsin with an overabundance of livestock, in the U.P. “there’s just not that many livestock, so there’s not that much opportunity for wolves to get into trouble that way,” Vucetich said.
“Wherever it is that wolves live, they are perceived to cause trouble associated with human safety, livestock and the interest that deer hunters have, those challenges end up being exaggerated,” he said. “And when you get rid of the exaggerations, the genuine concerns that are less are all quite easily accommodated.”
Vucetich said the wishes of state voters should be honored. Michigan was the only state where citizens were allowed to vote on deciding “whether they wanted to have hunting or not (of wolves), and they said no,” he said.
Even if the endangered species protections are removed, DNR spokesman Edward Golder said it doesn’t mean wolves will be immediately hunted. “It means that they would return to their previous status under legislation that’s been passed in Michigan that makes them a game species,” he said.
The Natural Resources Commission would decide if and when conditions warrant holding a hunt when the endangered species status is removed for the wolves. The 2013 hunt — the first one in Michigan in four decades — resulted in 22 wolves killed in the U.P., a little more than half of the state target of 43.
“All the (federal) legislation does is removes wolves in Michigan and two other states from the endangered or threatened species list, which we think is long overdue,” Golder said. “The wolves’ population is well past those recovery levels and has been for a couple of decades now.”
Congressional Republicans haven’t formed a consensus on an overall federal budget plan, so it could be a few weeks or several months before the fate of gray wolf hunting is known.
Meanwhile, Swanson said that the wolf population is strong.
Any eventual “harvest” or hunting of wolves would be controlled, regulated and done with sensitivity, he said, but the wolves “deserve to be managed.
“That doesn’t mean eradicated.”