Michigan hunt brings few wolves, but likely more controversy

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  • MARQUETTE, Mich. — Hunters fanned out across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on November 15, most in pursuit of white-tailed deer, but many also licensed to take part in the state’s first wolf hunting season.

    Six weeks later, the U.P. is firmly in the grip of a harsh winter and the wolf hunt is over. Although 1,200 wolf hunting permits were sold, only 23 wolves were harvested, against a limit of 43, out of a population estimated at about 660 animals. Many of the permits were purchased by deer hunters who had seen wolves or wolf tracks on previous trips here, and wanted to be prepared for an opportunistic encounter.

    Very few of those chance meetings took place, however, and even those hunters who focused exclusively on wolves found that the terrain, the weather, and the innate elusiveness of these creatures made it a very difficult endeavor.

    “In these conditions, the advantage definitely goes to the wolves,” said Nancy Warren, who lives on the edge of a wilderness area in wolf country west of here and serves as the regional director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, which opposed the hunt.

    And while the hunt ended, the controversy that has accompanied it since it was first proposed as a means to deal with livestock depredation issues is still very much alive.

    “Even though it was just 23 wolves, we still believe there was no justification for holding this hunt,” Warren said. “These wolves were killed just for being wolves.”

    The wolf hunt was held in three management units that involved just a small portion of the U.P. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said a primary reason for holding the hunt was to target wolves that had been involved in some of the more than 130 verified attacks by wolves on livestock and dogs over the past three years.

    Until about a half century ago, Michigan had paid a bounty to have wolves killed. Wolves were wiped out in the Lower Peninsula by the mid-1800s, and by about 1960, wolves were believed to be gone from northern Michigan, except for a small population on the isolated Isle Royale.

    Wolves gained protection in Michigan in 1965, and as the natural movement of wolves from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario eventually repopulated the U.P., their numbers grew to the point where in 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saw fit to remove wolves in the Great Lakes region from the protection of the federal endangered species list. In 2013, Michigan became one of the eight states where wolf hunting takes place, joining Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The neighboring province of Ontario also allows wolf hunting.

    Brian Roell, a wolf specialist who works out of the MDNR office here, said the low harvest figure in the Michigan wolf hunting season was not a surprise.

    “I don’t know that there is one correct answer for it, but wolf hunting is very different and this is all new to Michigan hunters, so that is probably a big factor,” Roell said. “And since we had hunting take place in just those three small zones, we probably overestimated our ability to take wolves by hunting only.”

    Wisconsin and Minnesota allow trapping as well as hunting of wolves, while Michigan has no trapping season for wolves. Wisconsin hunters harvested 257 wolves in the 2013 season, while Minnesota hunters have harvested 150, and that season has about a month left.

    Roell said that he considered Michigan’s 2013 wolf hunt a success, and that the initial examination of harvested wolves indicate the animals were healthy and free of mange. A postseason survey of hunters will provide more vital data on the recent season.

    Warren said her group is anxious to conduct an in-depth examination of the results and continue its fight to ban future wolf hunts.

    “We plan to really scrutinize the data on the animals that were killed,” she said. “The DNR said the purpose of the hunt was to reduce wolf conflicts with livestock and dogs, but I would bet that many of these wolves had nothing to do with any of the depredation. There is a lot of analytical work yet to be done.”

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