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Lansing — Voters can show how they feel about wolf hunting through two largely symbolic Nov. 4 ballot issues that also reflect a growing debate whether such controversial issues are best decided at polling places or by lawmakers reflecting their constituents’ wishes.

Michiganians are asked to approve or reject two Legislature-passed laws that allow wolves to be classified as game species and hunted but are being challenged through the state’s citizen referendum process. The two laws are suspended pending the Nov. 4 election and already are scheduled to be replaced by a third law approved by lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder this year that also allows wolf hunting.

The move by Snyder and lawmakers is at the crux of the debate about the best way to decide controversial issues because it was part of an end-around strategy by wolf hunting proponents that made the two ballot issues powerless — except as a gauge of the public will.

The group Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, which brought the two issues to this year’s ballot, is financing television ads that ask voters to reject the two laws by voting “no” on Proposal 14-1, the 2012 law, and Proposal 14-2, the 2013 law. The group, with substantial financial backing from the Humane Society of the U.S., wants voters to show they oppose wolf hunting in Michigan as they prepare to legally challenge the third wolf-hunt law that goes into effect in March.

Michigan Technological University environmental sciences associate professor John Vucetich, who has specialized in wolf research, said it’s a long-established wildlife management principle that “you shouldn’t kill something without a good reason.” And Vucetich says wolf hunting proponents have failed to prove there’s one.

He questions the main rationale for wolf hunting — to manage the state’s population of 650 wolves in the Upper Peninsula and control the number of wolf attacks on domestic animals such as cattle. Hunting is a blunt and ineffective instrument for that goal, said Vucetich, who contends the real reasons for pushing wolf hunting are hatred toward wolves and fabricated or exaggerated fears they will attack humans.

Wolf attacks on farm animals have averaged 12 a year except when they spiked in 2012 at around 50, more than half of which were at one Upper Peninsula farm whose cattle were poorly tended and more vulnerable, he said.

He argues a wolf population of 650 would result in 25-50 cases of depredation per year, so Michigan appears to be below the norm.

Vucetich adds that no humans have been injured or killed by wolves in Michigan, but in 2012 eight people were killed and 1,300 injured in vehicle-deer crashes. If the same rationale were applied to both animals, he argued, “we would be up-in-arms about white-tailed deer.”

“Wolf hunting is not part of our heritage,” Vucetich added. “We’ve done without hunting wolves for decades.”

But 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 specific areas of the U.P. where those attacks have occurred. The agency’s wolf specialist, Brian Roell, said it’s a carefully considered strategy based on scientific knowledge about wildlife.

“We have information that shows there is a correlation between wolf numbers and depredation,” Roell said. Targeting hunting in a way that reduces wolf numbers in specified areas where they’ve preyed on farm animals, he said, “could, in theory, reduce livestock depredation there.”

Roell also charged wolf hunting opponents “are using propaganda to garner a vote” by airing TV ads showing wolves caught in traps and claiming wolves could one day be hunted with packs of dogs in Michigan under the current law. The state DNR is unlikely to consider wolf hunting with dogs and isn’t mulling trapping, although it’s used in Wisconsin and other states for wolf control, he said.

The state’s only wolf hunt in the last 75 years was held last fall under the 2013 law being challenged on Nov. 4 ballots. The DNR designated three U.P. zones where wolf predation incidents had occurred, required hunters to phone in reports within 24 hours if they bagged a wolf and put a 45-wolf limit on the number to be killed.

Hunters ended up shooting 23 wolves and the subsequent wolf population count early this year showed that it had no impact on the overall population of the critters, the DNR reported.

There won’t be a wolf hunt this fall because the current law is suspended and the next hunting law doesn’t take effect for more than four months.

GHeinlein@detroitnews.com

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