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Wolves Making a Comeback in Northern Michigan

DNR helping people and wolves share space

October 31, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Wolves are returning to Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula, one of the fastest growing regions in the Midwest.

Oh, she was a young and adventurous wolf. In 2003 she set out on a southerly jaunt from Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula, crossed the ice of the Straits of Mackinac, and ambled into the Lower Peninsula’s Presque Isle County, where she met an untimely death in a coyote trap in October 2004.

On the strength of this precocious female, and other signs of wild wolves, the state Department of Natural Resources this year added an auspicious new chapter to the story of the gray wolf’s recovery in the Great Lakes region. With its team of professionals, volunteers, and a fleet of off-road vehicles, the agency searched last winter for any evidence left in the deep snow that healthy wolves had established a breeding pack in the thick forests of northern Michigan.

According to Brian Mastenbrook, the DNR’s wildlife habitat biologist, there is no doubt that, for the first time since 1910, when they were exterminated by a state bounty, wolves have returned to Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

Mr. Mastenbrook pointed out during a bumpy winter ride along the dirt roads of Otsego County that the young female’s move south made perfect biological sense. Since 1989, when Michigan documented the first active pack in the western Upper Peninsula, the state’s wolf population has increased to 438 animals, including 30 in Isle Royale National Park. “She was out checking new territory,” Mr. Mastenbrook said. “She might have felt like it was getting too crowded, or there was too much competition where she was.”

Two Reasons
There are two primary forces responsible for the return of the wolf in Michigan and across the Upper Great Lakes. The first is the sheer tenacity and innate intelligence of the species.

Nature provides wolves with an astonishing range of skills that allow them to thrive not only in fierce wilderness, but also in fast developing rural counties. Wolves are now so numerous in the Upper Peninsula — 80 packs roam there, and the number of adults is growing 13 percent annually — that some are quietly nosing around the Lower Peninsula.

The radio-collared female had been so eager to get out of her Upper Peninsula home range that she established a new hunting ground 60 miles away, where she thrived for at least seven months. Then, in November 2004, just a month after she was found, DNR conservation officers responded to a wolf sighting in the same area of Presque Isle County and confirmed that the four-inch tracks, larger than a dog’s or a coyote’s, belonged to a separate pair of wolves.

And late last May in Montmorency County, where the energy industry installed nearly $500 million in new natural gas infrastructure during the 1990s, state biologists discovered the unmistakable, straight-line tracks of at least two wolves. Right next door is Otsego County, one of the fastest developing rural counties in the Midwest.

The other reason wolves are thriving is the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which defined the gray wolf as endangered across the lower 48 states and made it a crime to deliberately and purposely kill a wolf.

When it comes to the wolf’s recovery across the Upper Great Lakes, the law has been a great success. According to state conservation agencies, there are 3,900 wolves in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, with 3,020 in Minnesota. In 1980 there were 1,250 in total, all but 25 in Minnesota. Only Alaska, with 6,000 to 8,000 wolves, has more wolves than the northern Great Lakes region does today.

The Endangered Species Act, in fact, has enabled wolves to be much more successful than the progressive leaders who pushed for federal protections in the first place. Unlike liberals, wolves are actually expanding their territory in the region’s heavily forested, politically red counties. The same is true in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

And herein lies the worm in the violet for conservation agencies in Michigan and the two other upper Midwest states: “In the mid-1990s, when we surveyed people in the Upper Peninsula, there was strong support for wolves, for increasing their numbers,” said Mr. Mastenbrook. “But as the numbers have increased, our surveys show that support for wolves has gone down. Our challenge is to come up with a way to manage wolves that is responsible to them and ends this erosion in public support.”

The Fear Factor
While scanning the roadside for evidence of a wolf’s track, the corners of Mr. Mastenbrook’s mouth harden as he talks about the difficulty of keeping wolf numbers growing while reducing public fear.

Encounters between wolves and farm animals and pets are more common now. In 2003 and 2004, the DNR confirmed wolves in the Upper Peninsula killed 12 dogs, 18 head of cattle, 13 chickens, and five sheep. Since the 1990s, the state has paid $17,366 to farmers to compensate for livestock losses. Those tiny numbers are enough to stoke resentment among farmers, fuel fears among the uninformed, and generally stir the passions of gun-owning, liberty- and property-rights loving rural people who aren’t big fans of government and environmental laws. 

The Republican-led federal government, and Michigan’s Democratic-led state government have sharply different views about how to resolve the rising clash between man and wolf. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried in 2003 to “de-list” wolves, which would end protections under the Endangered Species Act for gray wolves in the lower 48 states. The agency, which appeared to be acting at the direction of the White House and its farm and ranch supporters in the West, essentially argued that wolves were doing so well they didn’t need additional federal protection. Management duties could fall to the states.

But Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based national conservation group, along with 18 other organizations, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore. late in 2003, and argued that the rationale and proposed method for de-listing wolves violated the law. On January 31, 2005, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones agreed and struck down the Bush Administration’s proposal. The federal wildlife agency abandoned the plan for the time being.

Nevertheless, the politics that motivated the Bush administration to try to weaken protections persists across the conservative counties where most American wolves live. Passions against wolves run high in the U.P. In July 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held a hearing in Marquette to allow people to comment on its de-listing proposal. About 50 people attended; almost every one supported the idea.

A Regional Thing
Michigan, though, is now led by a centrist Democrat, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, whose 2002 campaign stressed enforcing existing environmental laws and including citizens in conservation decisions. Brian Roell, a lineman-sized biologist raised on an Upper Peninsula cattle farm, is Michigan’s wolf coordinator. He is leading the state’s push for a new state management plan that includes finding the “social carrying capacity” for wolves in Michigan.

“The land can support a lot of wolves,” Mr. Roell said. “They are turning out to be much more adaptable than we ever thought. But will Michigan accept a lot of wolves? It’s difficult with a large predator. You know, no one is afraid of being overrun by chickadees.”

Earlier this year Mr. Roell and his team conducted 10 public hearings—six in the Upper Peninsula, four more in the Lower. The comments of the 500 citizens who attended differed markedly, depending on the region. In the Upper Peninsula, citizens worried about losing farm animals and hunting dogs, sported anti-wolf pins and bumper stickers, said they feared for themselves and their children, and urged the state to open a limited wolf-hunting season. In southern Michigan, citizens urged the state to protect wolves and increase their numbers.

During the final hearing in Otsego County in May, bear hunters said that the state should compensate them for dogs killed by wolves, just as it does for cattle. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t have wolves,” said Rusty Huff, a bear hunter who attended the meeting. “I’m just saying these dogs are valuable animals. If we can compensate farmers for livestock, we ought to be able to compensate hunters for dogs killed by wolves. It should be part of the management plan.”

Neither Mr. Roell nor any of his colleagues will predict whether a limited hunt will occur in Michigan if the federal government de-lists the wolf; that would require legislative approval, hardly a foregone conclusion.

But the way that the DNR is developing a plan to find a way for wolves and people to get along has enhanced the agency’s credibility; its new wolf management plan, due for completion in 2007, will almost certainly be well received.

Farm groups note that when the state confirms a wolf attack on cattle and poultry, it quickly hunts and kills problem animals; 14 wolves have been euthanized in Michigan, including 10 in the last two years. The state has a federal permit, not protested by conservation groups, to take 20 problem wolves in 2005. Only two wolves have been killed this year, including a sick one.

Reversing a Rapacious History
Conservationists, meanwhile, commend the agency for taking seriously its responsibility to enforce the state and federal endangered species law and prosecute violators.

According to Thomas Courchaine, a DNR conservation officer, U.P poachers have killed 42 wolves in the last 16 years. The DNR has closed about a third of those cases. In the most recent prosecution, James Lakosky, a 55-year-old U.P. resident, pleaded guilty to shooting a wolf last November. Mr. Lakosky was fined $910, paid $1,500 in restitution, and was sentenced to either seven days in jail or 14 days of community service. State Circuit Court Judge Joseph Schwedler told him that the penalty would send a message that it was not acceptable to illegally kill a wolf in Iron County.

Most residents embrace that message, despite ambivalent feelings towards wolves. Last December, a study by researchers at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., found that 90 percent of those surveyed said wolves should be allowed to live throughout Michigan. But the study also showed that many people still view wolves as a threat: More than two thirds said that they would fear for their children if they knew wolves lived nearby. 

"People really do have a deep-seated irrational fear of wolves,” said Kevin Schanning, the sociology professor who led the five-year study. “This persists despite no evidence of wolves attacking humans in Michigan. Statistically, you are in more danger from domestic dogs and bees."

The survey underscored the emotional, educational, and ideological impediments that wolves face in the Upper Midwest. Michigan’s history is one of rapaciousness when it comes to the natural realm. The state drove passenger pigeons to extinction at the end of the 19th century, game birds once so numerous in Michigan they shadowed the sky. All that’s left of the tens of millions of acres of virgin white pine, hemlock, spruce, cedar, and maple that blanketed Michigan until the early 20th century are a few trees protected in state parks.

Wolves were part of that sad tradition: The ninth law that Michigan passed after statehood was a wolf bounty, which lasted until 1965, when the state came to its senses and started protecting the continent’s largest canid. By that time, wolves had been completely eradicated, except on Isle Royale, where a healthy pack that crossed the ice from Canada feasted on moose and small game.

Forty years later wolves are back in Michigan, expanding their territory into areas where more people live than ever before. The question is whether a state conservation agency is capable of committing itself to a management plan that really works. For the wolves’ sake, it better.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A version of this article was published in the Fall 2005 edition of Defenders, the magazine of the Defenders of Wildlife. Reach him at Keith@mlui.org

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