Gray wolves in Michigan regain federal protection. Is it still legal to kill them?

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Two state laws that allowed dog and livestock owners to kill threatening wolves in Michigan have been suspended following a federal court ruling that placed gray wolves back on the endangered species list, Department of Natural Resources officials said Friday.

The laws, both passed in 2008, allowed owners of hunting dogs and owners of livestock to "remove, capture, or, if deemed necessary, use lethal means to destroy a gray wolf" that is in the act of preying on the owner's dog or livestock.

Those laws are only in effect when Michigan's gray wolves are not on the federal list of threatened and endangered animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. 

In this Feb. 10, 2006, file photo provided by Michigan Technological University, a gray wolf is shown on Isle Royale National Park in northern Michigan.

They were suspended Thursday after a federal court in northern California vacated an order the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had issued Nov. 3, 2020 during the Trump administration. The service had removed gray wolves from the endangered and threatened species list in the contiguous United States, which removed their protection from hunting and other activities that would jeopardize their population.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately consider the threats to wolves that live outside of the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountain regions, where wolf populations are higher, when it decided to delist the species nationally.

In July, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office filed an amicus brief in the case in support of the wildlife groups who had sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Nessel's office also argued that the gray wolf population's rebound in the Great Lakes region shouldn't mean the species is removed from the list protecting it nationwide, contending the service should allow wolves to rebound in their full historical range, not just a part of it. 

"These magnificent animals serve important roles in our Great Lakes ecosystems, and they show us that dedication to family is not unique to humans," MNessel said in a statement Friday. "I refused to stand idly by when the federal government tried to use the Great Lakes wolf recovery success story to remove needed Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in other states. The court rightfully ruled in favor of nationwide wolf recovery, and I applaud this development."

It is still legal to kill a wolf in Michigan to save a human life, DNR spokesman Ed Golder said.

Roughly 700 wolves live in Michigan, all in the Upper Peninsula, according to the DNR's latest count in 2019-2020.

Wolves roamed the state in the early 1800s. They vanished from the Lower Peninsula in 1935 and had virtually disappeared from the Upper Peninsula by the early 1970s. 

Michigan is in the process of updating its wolf management plan, Golder said. It was created in 2008 and updated in 2015.

The plan is supposed to guide the department's efforts to minimize conflicts with wolves, maintain a viable wolf population, promote the benefits wolves bring to the ecosystem and manage the population in a science-based and socially acceptable way.

Wolf hunting is a controversial management technique in Michigan. On one side are environmental groups, which argue there is no environmental need for a hunt. Arguments from the other side often come from farmers who argue wolves can damage their livelihood and people afraid for human safety in the Upper Peninsula where Michigan's wolves roam.

The state reimburses farmers whose livestock are killed by wolves.

More:Why wolf hunting faces uphill fight in Michigan despite federal delisting