The Fate of the Gray Wolf Lies in the Hands of Michigan Voters

Hunting of the formerly endangered species is on the ballot. Only 630 are left in the state.

(Photo: Danita Delimont/Getty Images)

Oct 13, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Friess has written for Politico and The New York Times. He teaches journalism at Michigan State University.

Voters will determine the future political lives of a number of humans on Election Day, but in Michigan, the actual lives of gray wolves also hang in the balance.

On Nov. 4, the people of Michigan will vote on whether to uphold or overturn laws passed by the state legislature that permit hunting of the gray wolf.

The gray wolf was on the brink of extinction 40 years ago but lost its federally protected status in 2012 as its population recovered. In Michigan, the wolves are found only in the remote, sparsely populated Upper Peninsula. The state’s Department of Natural Resources estimates there are about 630 wolves, and hunt proponents insist the predators have become a menace to livestock and domesticated pets.

Tony Demboski, president of the Upper Peninsula Sportsmen’s Alliance, said the aim isn’t to “hunt” wolves so much as “the scientific management of controlling the wolves just as we do the deer, coyotes, and bears.”

“Nobody is out to eliminate wolves,” he said. “But we have farmers who are losing livestock, people in the city of Ironwood who are scared to let their kids go to their bus stops.”

There have been no reports of wolves attacking people in Ironwood, which is on the Wisconsin border, or any other town in Michigan. An investigative series by Mlive.com in November 2013 found most of the incidents claimed by hunting advocates had been fabricated or exaggerated. More recently, a spate of four wolf attacks in August in the Upper Peninsula resulted in the deaths of a hunting dog and a cow, according to the DNR.

The vote is the latest battle between backers of the hunt in the Republican-dominated legislature and opponents, whose campaign is funded in large part by The Humane Society of the United States.

A bill to permit wolf hunts passed in late 2012, but the grassroots organization Keep Michigan Wolves Protected collected enough signatures to delay the law until it is voted on in the November election. By 2013, the legislature passed another bill, this time to allow the state’s Natural Resources Commission board to designate the wolf as a game species.

The result of that bill was a six-week wolf hunt in late 2013 in which hunters killed 22 wolves—about half the limit set by NRC. Earlier this year, Keep Michigan Wolves Protected turned in enough signatures to freeze that bill too and put it on the Nov. 4 ballot.

“When the first bill was introduced in October of 2012, I immediately heard from people in U.P. [Upper Peninsula] who were horrified that the wolves had just began to recover and now would be hunted,” said Jill Fritz, chairwoman of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected. “And then the second law was passed for the sole reason of circumventing a voter referendum after we stopped the first one.”

Still, it’s unclear whether banning wolf hunts at the ballot box will be enough to protect the animals.

This summer, the Michigan legislature approved a “citizen-initiated” bill that confirmed the NRC’s power to name the gray wolf a game species and establish hunts. It was forwarded to the state with the necessary 275,000 signatures organized by the group Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management.

Because lawmakers added an appropriation requirement that the state spend $1 million on fighting Asian carp and other invasive species, it cannot be repealed by referendum.

Fritz’s group is suing to block the law as unconstitutional, and courts are expected to consider the issue in early 2015.