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State takes stock of wolves as Congress enters fray

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

Seney — Paw prints trace the clearing between trees, where pines and birches claw the March sky.

A lone hiker, map in hand, notes the tracks are miles from the nearest highway, off a road paved for logging in Schoolcraft County. The prints are large but indistinct, older and dusted by the last snowstorm.

But the stride — straight and long, just over 5 feet — gives the game away to this reporter.

A wolf was here.

On this day, wildlife biologists are on land and in air, counting gray wolves in the Upper Peninsula. It is the first survey in Michigan in two years, after voters protected the state’s most controversial predator from hunters.

Now, efforts are underway in Congress to end the protracted battle over Canis lupus in four states, including Michigan.

The U.S. House voted last month to lift federal protection for wolves and make the decision immune to court and voter reaction. The Senate is considering a similar measure.

Critics say the effort is doomed, the same as previous campaigns. State wildlife experts hope otherwise.

“We are very able and willing to manage wolves in the state,” said Kevin Swanson, the top wolf biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “People are very fed up with the lack of management.”

Critics say wolves, once endangered in Michigan, have surpassed goals for re-establishment. The predators attack livestock and dogs and spook residents by wandering into neighborhoods, the critics charge.

The DNR wants wolves delisted, so people can kill problem animals, but not as a tool for population reduction. State lawmakers authorized the DNR to order hunts three years ago, but a judge halted the culling in late 2014.

Taking an aerial view

The survey is to determine whether there are more, less or about the same number of wolves as two years ago, when 636 were counted before pups were born. Final numbers should be available in April, Swanson said. The count began in January, later than normal due to a lack of snow earlier in the winter.

On this early March morning, DNR wildlife biologist Kristie Sitar is soaring over southeast Luce County in a single-engine Cessna with pilot Dean Minett.

Sitar’s black and gray hand receiver is honing in on a male, tuned to the frequency of the wolf’s radio collar. The wolf is the alpha of a pack of four. Two wolves can make a pack; a large pack is eight wolves.

And there they are, four bedding in the snow, warming in the sun. Sitar is trying to distinguish them from another pack in Schoolcraft County. She determines they are a separate group.

The plane aside, most of the survey is done on the ground, using trucks, snowmobiles and snowshoes.

“The very, very largest part is ground searches,” Sitar said.

Tracking by land

Back in Schoolcraft County, the hiker follows the wolf tracks north of Seney on a calm, mostly sunny afternoon.

The prints, about four miles north of the nearest paved road, would be impossible to follow if a plow had not cleared the way for loggers.

Snow crust collapses every third step or so, and the visitor quickly learns to do what wolves do: Step in another creature’s tracks.

A single set of prints can be deceiving, Swanson said.

“I’ll follow a wolf track for miles, thinking it looks like a single animal, and then other tracks depart from it and there may have been three or four wolves,” he said.

The tracks this day are in a straight line, compared to dogs, which weave like they’re drunk. A wolf wastes very little energy while traveling. In February, eight wolves were seen in a pack here, Sitar said.

About 125 wolf packs populate the Upper Peninsula, averaging five wolves each, Swanson said. They often are named for their territories: the Strawberry Lake Pack, the Walsh Pack, the Arnold Pack.

Illegal shootings are a problem. Swanson said 40 percent of mortalities among collared wolves are due to poachers. The DNR has collared 20 to 30 alpha wolves in the Upper Peninsula, allowing regulators to monitor entire packs through the leader.

The legal battle

Wolves have been the subject of an intense legal and political tug of war.

The DNR approved a wolf-hunting season for late 2013 to minimize attacks on livestock and dogs and conflicts with humans. The hunt, 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 in November 2014, Michigan voters rejected the wolf hunts in two referendum votes. Trumping that, lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder signed a third measure to bypass voters and allow the wolf hunts.

That effort was stopped in December 2014. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., restored the protected status of wolves in the Great Lakes region — meaning none can be shot except when posing a threat to human life.

The House-approved measure would change that. U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, co-sponsored an amendment to the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act that would remove endangered or threatened species protection for wolves in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Wyoming.

In the Senate, the bill has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. A companion measure, the Sportsmen’s Act, has similar goals and has passed a committee vote.

“What the stumbling block seems to be is getting to the 60-vote threshold in the Senate to avoid a filibuster,” said Drew Youngedyke, spokesman for Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

One man’s verdict

The morning after following the wolf tracks near Seney, this reporter is exploring back country on a road north of M-28, about 80 miles to the west.

It’s so remote that hours can pass without traffic.

Two sets of tracks appear, but they’re too small and their gait is perhaps half that of a wolf. These are coyote tracks.

No wolf tracks are evident, though wolves are known to frequent here. Finally, a truck driver pulls up and stops to talk.

Bob Goodwin, a tow service operator, minces no words when it comes to wolves.

They “kill to kill” and are “the smartest animal” at tracking and ambushing prey. There are too many of them, and they’re decimating the local deer population, Goodwin said.

“Oh, they are hateful creatures.”

John Barnes is a freelance writer in West Michigan