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Lansing — The Keep Michigan Wolves Protected group has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a 2014 state law that sets up a process under which wolf hunting could continue in Michigan.

The lawsuit, the group's leader said, is needed because Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls and other members of Congress are working on legislation to thwart a federal judge's ruling that put Michigan wolves back under protections from hunting and trapping.

It shows wolf hunting remains a hot-button issue in Michigan, more than in neighboring Minnesota and Wisconsin, whose wolves also were sent back to the federal endangered species list by a December ruling from U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell in Washington, D.C.

Hunting proponents are engaging in "a cynical and veiled attempt to prevent Michigan voters from having a say on hunting of wolves and other animals," Keep Michigan Wolves Protected director Jill Fritz said in a message on the group's website.

The lawsuit, in the state's Court of Claims, argues Michigan's Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act is unconstitutional because backers obscured its true purpose when lawmakers approved it.

Passed in August 2014, the act authorizes the governor's appointees on the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to designate all future game species that can be hunted.

It also calls for reinstatement of an earlier, voter-rejected law should Michigan voters decide to overturn it which Keep Michigan Wolves Protected argues is "thereby transferring decision-making authority on important wildlife management issues to a panel of bureaucrats that is not accountable to the public."

The anti-hunting group's argument was rejected by Drew Youngdyke, grassroots manager of Michigan United Conservation Clubs. The elements of the law are consistent with its descriptive title, said Youngdyke, who was spokesman for a coalition that collected petition signatures that led to lawmakers' passage of the 2014 law.

"I get that that's the legal theory they're advancing, but we think they're grasping at straws," he said.

Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, the Humane Society of the United States and other groups have been battling the Michigan Legislature's wolf hunting proponents in court and at the ballot box for more than two years.

Backers of wolf hunting laws maintain the predators are no longer endangered since there are more than 600 in the state. They say wolves are preying on domestic animals as their population has grown and state natural resources officials should be allowed to control their numbers according to scientific considerations.

Michigan's Department of Natural Resources favors 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.

"We have information that shows there is a correlation between wolf numbers and depredation," the agency's wolf specialist, Brian Roell, told The Detroit News in October. Targeting hunting in a way that reduces wolf numbers in specified areas where they've preyed on farm animals, Roell said, "could, in theory, reduce livestock depredation there."

Opponents say wolf hunting is unnecessary because wolves aren't needed as food and because killing problem wolves already is allowed. Based on public opinion polls and anti-wolf hunting voting results last November, a strong majority of Michiganians agree, they say.

But Howell's decision wasn't welcomed in many parts of Michigan — especially the Upper Peninsula, where wolves are concentrated — because the federal interior secretary had taken them off the endangered list in 2011, partly because of their growing numbers.

Benishek, four Democrats and 10 other Republicans filed legislation that would direct the Interior secretary to reissue rules on the status of the wolves in the western Great Lakes states and Wyoming. That could lead to the endangered status of the wolves being challenged again.

Howell's ruling also interfered with carrying out of the most immediate intent of Michigan's Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act: to let the Natural Resources Commission re-approve wolf hunting in Michigan.

One season of hunting in designated areas of the U.P. in 2013 led to the killing of 23 wolves. The law behind that hunt, and a prior law that also permitted wolf hunting, were suspended when Keep Wolves Protected and other opponents filed petitions calling for state referendums on both.

In November, Michigan voters overturned the two prior wolf hunting laws by 55 percent and 64 percent majorities with no active opposition. But lawmakers already had passed the Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act that was rendered moot by the federal judge's decision.

Keep Michigan Wolves Protected and the other organizations want the Interior secretary to designate the animals as "threatened." That's a step down from "endangered" and would allow flexibility in dealing with occasional problem wolves, they say.

gheinlein@detroitnews.com

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