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The number of gray wolves in Michigan grew for the second consecutive survey to 695 wolves — the highest number of the endangered species recorded since three wolves were detected in the state in 1988-89.

The minimum estimate of 695 wolves was found among 139 packs across the Upper Peninsula this past winter and marked a 5% increase from the 662 wolves discovered among 139 packs in 2018, the state Department of Natural Resources said Monday.

The estimate from two years ago itself was a 7% rise from the 618 wolves detected in 2016, according to the state.

“The survey is important because it helps us monitor wolf distribution and abundance, answer research questions and evaluate progress toward state and federal recovery goals,” said Dan Kennedy, acting chief of the DNR's Wildlife Division. “Our survey results continue to demonstrate that Michigan’s wolf population has recovered.”

The survey was done from December through March and has been conducted every couple of years at least since the wolves naturally returned in 1988 to the Upper Peninsula after being hunted into extinction. 

Some U.P. residents have lobbied to hunt the wolves since they say the predators are preying on domestic animals as their population has grown. 

But wolf hunting remains illegal in Michigan since a federal judge ruled in late 2014 that the gray wolves should maintain their endangered status.

In 2013, Michigan allowed for one season of hunting in designated areas of the U.P. that led to the killing of 23 wolves. The hunt followed the federal interior secretary's decision in 2011 to take the gray wolves off the endangered list in part because of their growing numbers.

The DNR traditionally has favored hunting as a way to reduce wolf predation of domestic animals and control the numbers of wolves in areas of the Upper Peninsula where attacks have happened.

Opponents have countered that wolf hunting is unnecessary because wolves aren't needed as food and because killing problem wolves already is allowed. 

"Wolves remain an endangered species in Michigan under federal court ruling, which means wolves can be killed only in defense of human life," DNR spokesman Ed Golder said in a Monday email.  

The gray wolves have thrived since their return to Michigan more than three decades ago. Within a decade, they had grown to an estimated 249 wolves in 2000-2001.

In 2004, Michigan achieved its goal by maintaining a minimum sustainable population of 200 wolves for five consecutive years. The state removed the wolves from its list of threatened and endangered species in 2009.

Since 2000, the number of gray wolves more than doubled and caused concern among UP residents. Lawmakers pursued laws that would allow for wolf hunting if it was deemed scientifically necessary.

Opponents floated two anti-wolf-hunting proposals that were approved by voters in 2014. But the Republican-controlled Legislature neutered the ballot proposals by passing a law that authorizes the governor's appointees on the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to designate all future game species that can be hunted.

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