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Published: Sunday, 5/29/2011

Managing wolf population in Michigan makes sense

BY STEVE POLLICK
BLADE OUTDOORS COLUMNIST

The political Ping-Pong game that has become the fate of the wolf in Michigan again is at the “ping” stage — the wolf again may come under state, not federal, management — just when wolf numbers in the Upper Peninsula are as high as ever at nearly 700 animals.

Whether the wolf’s status “pongs” back into ever more wasteful, expensive, legal delays at the hands of well-heeled, self-righteous do-gooders wanting to impose their will on the public good is up for grabs.

Here’s the deal: Early this month the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, its hand forced this time by Congress, not the courts, reinstated its 2009 decision to de-list the “biologically recovered” gray wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains.

In 1978 the wolf was listed as endangered in the lower 48 states [except in Minnesota, threatened] under the federal Endangered Species Act. This after decades, if not centuries, of unregulated persecution had made its presence ghostlike.

Under max ESA protection, and reintroduction to the northern Rockies, the wolf bred like what it is — the original unspayed, uncontrolled wild dog. In a sense, it was a success story.

But so-called environmentalists sued every time the government tried to reduce the maximum protections, this under the apparent excuse that wolves somehow are sacred, beyond reach, and that ignorant, 19th-century-style, anti-wolf persecution [shootings, trappings, poisonings] would return in force. Such contentious thinking is a bald insult to the legions of dedicated, ethical, concerned wildlife biologists and managers — a careful management plans — in state agencies.

At the same time of the Rockies-wolf announcement, the USF&WS also said it plans to de-list the wolf in the three upper Great Lakes States, where it now numbers more than 4,500 animals, and counting [Minnesota, 3,000-plus, Wisconsin, 800 to 850, and upper Michigan, about 700]. All of which brings the issue closer to home.

Considering the initial recovery goal for Michigan and Wisconsin combined was just 100 wolves, you might think that more than 1,500 wolves between them was more than enough, especially with twice as many again in Minnesota. But individuals with big bank accounts and loud lobbyists with their hands in deep pockets have dragged this issue into a time-warp. Apparently there is no such thing for them as too many wolves. They keep suing for full endangered protection in what, it says here, is an unethical abuse of the spirit of a law [ESA] for personal agendas.

It is not as if state wildlife biologists and managers are any less careful or sensitive than federal counterparts toward all wildlife and ecosystems and the overarching conservation ethic. Michigan, moreover, has had a 96-page wolf management plan, approved by the feds since 2008, waiting to go and partially in force, minus the legal waste and delays.

“I think it is going to go,” said Brian Roell about the planned federal de-listing. Roell is Michigan’s wolf biologist. “The question is, will there be [more] lawsuits that follow?”

Roell attended a recent USF&WS hearing in Ashland, Wis., about the de-listing, and he said that audience sentiment seemed 60-40 in favor. Which means a sizeable opposition remains. “It’s not going to be an easy thing,” he stated.

Officially, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has voiced its support for the federal proposal to remove wolves in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota from the endangered species list and return wolf management to the state. Same for the corresponding agencies in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“Returning wolves to state management will allow us to manage this recovered species under Michigan’s highly-regarded Wolf Management Plan, which was created through a roundtable process involving stakeholders from all sides of the wolf issue,” said Russ Mason, MDNR wildlife chief. “State management will give us greater flexibility in how we can respond to problem wolves on the landscape, while maintaining sound management practices and increasing social acceptance of the species as a whole.”

Wolves were added to the federal endangered species list in 1973, after nearly disappearing from the state in the early 1960s. Natural emigration of wolves from Minnesota and Ontario to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was documented in the 1980s, and the most recent estimate of Michigan’s minimum winter wolf population completed in April indicates a new high of 687 animals.

All of those wolves live in the U.P., according to Roell. Although some wolves have been seen in the northern lower peninsula in recent years, Roell thinks that current numbers there mostly are in the single digits. “If I were betting I’d say it is zero.”

Roell noted that wolf territories in the western U.P. are growing smaller because wolf numbers are becoming denser. Most of recent population expamsion has come in the eastern U.P., but Roell notes, “all available wolf habitat is occupied.”

“Maintaining endangered species status for a recovered species like wolves is not beneficial to the animals, and erodes public support for the Endangered Species Act,” said Chris Hoving, MDNR endangered species coordinator.

“De-listing is a positive step for wolves, and will help free up time and funding essential to the recovery of other species that are truly endangered or threatened. Litigation is without merit,” summed Hoving.

He added that a public meeting on the issue is set for June 16, 6 to 8 p.m., at Northern Michigan University, University Center, at Marquette.

Addressing a contention that some 700 wolves may not be enough for genetic viability in Michigan, Roell points to the species tremendous mobility — they can travel hundreds of miles, easily — and contends that the populations of the three upper Great Lakes states should be considered as one. In short, there are plenty of wolves to produce genetic vigor. The biologist also asserted that the states have no intention of re-creating the ignorant 19th-century anti-wolf persecution. Which does not mean that wolves might not have to be killed in select cases, as outlines in the wolf plan.

He noted, for example, that one pack in the U.P. is responsible for killing 28 cattle and has taught a second generation to prey on livestock as well.

They need to be controlled by lethal means, he added, because nonlethal methods have proven useless. But the state is handcuffed as to how far it can go under federal ESA restrictions and is forced to keep paying out compensation for lost livestock.

“None of the states [including in the Rockies] want wolves to go back to being [federally] listed,” the biologist stated. The states have every incentive, given the time, effort, and money wasted on the de-listing court fights over the years, to maintain viable, healthy wolf populations, he added.

If the proposed federal de-listing rule is approved and made final, management of wolves in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota could return to state authority before the end of the year.

After the transition from endangered to recovered status, the USF&WS will continue to monitor population numbers for five years to ensure recovery is stable.

In accordance with the Wolf Management Plan, wolves in Michigan will be classified as a nongame protected species.

Any future decision to reclassify wolves as a game species would be at the discretion of the state legislature.

For more about the history of wolves in Michigan and view the Wolf Management Plan, visit online at michigan.gov/wolves.

Here is hoping that state management of wolves passes muster this time around.

Contact Steve Pollick at: spollick@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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