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Published: Sunday, 11/17/2013

OUTDOORS

Wolf hunt in Michigan proves every bit as difficult as expected

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

BARAGA, Mich. — Opening day of Michigan’s first wolf hunting season in the Upper Peninsula produced results that likely speak to the elusiveness of the species. From the 1,200 permits the state issued to harvest wolves, just three wolves were killed on Friday, the initial day they could be legally hunted.

The first recorded harvest of a gray wolf in this highly scrutinized and closely metered hunt came shortly after sunrise in the semi-wilderness near the small village of Baraga at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula, in the northern U. P. The wolf was a male that weighed about 80 pounds and had a silver coat.

The hunter, who is from the Jackson area in the Lower Peninsula, did not want his name publicized because of the ongoing controversy that has shadowed this hunt. He took the wolf in the Baraga Plains, a large tract of public land that is somewhat typical of the rugged terrain west of Marquette.

The wolf hunt is taking place in just three relatively small areas of the U.P., places where the instances of livestock depredation by wolves have been persistent and other methods of control have not worked, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. One of these wolf management units is in the extreme northwest corner of the U.P., with a second unit running west and southwest from Keweenaw Bay, and a third taking in a portion of Mackinac County in the eastern U.P.

Much of the wolf hunting zones are craggy pine forest sprinkled with aspens and a few oaks, rocky outcroppings, bogs, and a fair-weather road just here and there. A few small farms, plus the scars left by mining and logging operations, are often the only imperfections dotting the harsh landscape Mother Nature has carved out in the U.P.

“This is tough terrain, and you are dealing with one of the most intelligent and cunning animals out there,” said hunter Gary Modlin, who saw no wolves but did see a number of white-tailed deer on Friday, which was also the opening day for Michigan’s firearms season for deer.

From a wolf population estimated at around 660, the Michigan DNR has set a target harvest figure of 43 wolves for the season, which runs through Dec. 31, with individual harvest ceilings for each of the three management units. Once the maximum harvest figure is reached, that unit is closed for the remainder of the season.

Modlin, who is president of the U.P. Whitetails Association of Marquette County, said he was not surprised at all that just three wolves were shot on the opening day of the season.

“Wolves make it their business not to be seen, so I’m not shocked that there were so few taken,” he said. “I’ve been hunting in the U.P. since 1979, and in all of that time I’ve seen one wolf, and that one was running across the highway.”

The second opening day wolf was taken in Gogebic County, in the northwestern tip of the U.P. According to the DNR, a hunter from Huron County shot that wolf, which weighed about 75 pounds and also was taken on public land. A third opening-day wolf was harvested in the Baraga region.

Harold Sikkila, a professional guide in the U.P. who specializes in hunting predators — bears, coyotes and now wolves — said he was hunting an area near the tiny hamlet of Covington, where wolves had killed several cows, but he saw no wolves on opening day.

“With all of the extra deer hunters out here right now, I think the wolves are on edge,” Sikkila said. “I would expect things to settle down after the weekend, but right now I’m guessing the wolves are on the run.”

Brian Roell, a wolf specialist with the DNR in the western U.P., said the terrain, the instinctive strengths of the wolf, and the expanse of the U.P. — some 16,824 square miles — make this a very challenging hunt under any circumstances.

“Wolf hunting is very tough: It’s just a lot harder than many people might think,” Roell said Saturday morning from the check station in Marquette. “When you consider there’s less than 700 animals in all of the U.P., we expected this to be quite difficult.”

Roell said wolf hunter success rates in previous seasons in neighboring Wisconsin and Minnesota were only about four percent, so Michigan based the number of wolf permits it issued on that data. With a season bag limit of one, Michigan will reach its harvest ceiling of 43 when slightly less than four percent of the permit holders have harvested a wolf.

Wendell Miller, a dairy farmer from near Engadine, which is on Lake Michigan in the eastern U.P., had wolf hunters on his property this weekend and said he favors the wolf hunt because he hopes it will imprint a fear of man in the wolves. Miller has had wolves attack calves, kill one of the goats his wife keeps on the farm, and he has lost several sheep to the wolf pack, which he said moves freely around the area.

“They’ve lost any fear of humans,” Miller said. “They’ve come right up between the house and the shed to try and get newborn calves. They’re much bolder now.”

Miller stressed he is tired of hearing from the extremes in the wolf hunting debate — one side wants to outlaw any hunting, and the other side wants to shoot any wolves on sight.

“I think wolves are a vital part of the ecosystem here, so those extremists on both sides concern me,” he said. “I’m thankful that we have wolves here in the U.P., but like with all things, there has to be a balance.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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