Michigan looks for ways to avoid wolf-human conflicts
Eric Wallis insists wolves were responsible for the disappearance of more than 80 lambs from his farm in the eastern Upper Peninsula several years ago, although he can’t prove it.
“I have seen wolves on my property numerous times,” Wallis said. “They’re out there.”
He hasn’t lost any lambs the past two years, since acquiring Great Pyrenees dogs to patrol the premises, and is hosting researchers who are testing nonlethal means of keeping wolves away. Still, he chafes at being legally barred from taking shots at them.
“I’ve got nothing against wolves if they’d just stay out of my sheep,” said Wallis, of Rudyard in Chippewa County.
As federal and state officials prepare to ease protections that helped the gray wolf rebound from the brink of extinction, Upper Peninsula residents such as Wallis will help determine whether the animal can peacefully coexist with people.
Interior Secretary Gail Norton this month proposed removing the wolf from the endangered species list for the eastern United States — including the Great Lakes region. That would leave state officials in charge of wolf management within their boundaries.
Norton plans to issue a final rule late this year or early next year, but a court challenge could delay its implementation.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is getting ready. The agency Friday announced the appointment of Brian Roell, a former DNR wildlife technician, as state wolf coordinator.
The DNR is updating a management plan first adopted in 1997 that envisions a thriving, but controlled, wolf population.
“There are some people in the U.P. who don’t want to see any wolves, and others want to have as many as the habitat can bear,” said Pat Lederle, research supervisor in the wildlife division. “We have to somehow strike a balance that makes sure the wolf remains viable and the issues that people bring up are dealt with.”
The DNR announced in May the number of wolves in the Upper Peninsula had reached about 360 and exceeded 200 for the fifth consecutive year, indicating a sustainable population. None are known to live in the Lower Peninsula.
Enough food and habitat may exist for 400 to 800 wolves, Lederle said. But if the numbers continue rising, the DNR will confront the touchy issue of “social carrying capacity” — how many animals people will tolerate, and how to keep the population within acceptable limits.
The DNR is teaming with Michigan State University on a study of that and related issues, and will consult with a variety of interest groups.
Environmentalists oppose artificial ceilings on the wolf population and say killing them should be a last resort.
“We should focus on reducing the conflicts with humans instead of pulling numbers out of the sky,” said Anne Woiwode, Michigan director of the Sierra Club. “Arbitrary limits are dangerous. They assume we know more about these animals than we do.”
Others say wolves will suffer in the long run if their numbers aren’t limited.
“I’m afraid the wolf’s biggest danger will come from people who purport to love the wolf the most .. and want to save every one,” said Jim Hammill, a retired DNR wildlife biologist. “Deer hunters will take them out if we don’t demonstrate that we can control them.”
The Michigan United Conservation Clubs wants wolves designated a game animal subject to regulated hunting and trapping, said Jason Dinsmore, resource policy specialist.
“We don’t want them hunted to extinction any more than anybody else does,” Dinsmore said. “Predators have a role to play in nature. But you don’t want to get to the point where people are … seeing them as pests and (randomly) shooting them.”
Farmers such as Wallis want authority to kill wolves attacking their livestock. The DNR won’t promise that, but says it will remove wolves that repeatedly prey on farm animals. Last year, it exterminated a pack that was targeting cattle in the eastern U.P.
The state compensates farmers for livestock lost to wolves, but critics say the DNR’s burden of proof is unfair.
Wallis has received no money because most of his lambs simply disappeared. He found a couple of mangled carcasses, but a DNR investigator said it was unclear whether the attacker was a wolf or a coyote. “It’s very frustrating,” he said.
The bar is set high for a good reason, Lederle said. “Many animals prey on livestock — bears, coyotes, large dogs. Simply seeing a wolf in your pasture one week and finding a dead calf the next week doesn’t constitute proof. It’s not an easy determination at all.”
Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington, D.C., is helping fund studies of nonlethal controls such as shock collars to keep wolves away from livestock, said Nina Fascione, vice president for field conservation.
Researchers on Wallis’ farm are testing the effectiveness of a method called “fladry.” A length of cord is stretched around the perimeter of the property, with flags attached every 18 inches.
Hunters in eastern Europe discovered centuries ago that wolves don’t like to cross fladry lines, but simply run alongside them — perhaps because the flags seem alive as they flap in the breeze, said Tom Gehring of Central Michigan University, who is coordinating the study.
Fladry lines have been placed on three U.P. farms. Three neighboring farms without fladry are being observed as controls, said Gehring, an assistant professor of wildlife biology.
“So far we have three or four wolf visits on the control farms and no visits on the farms next door that have fladry protection,” Gehring said.
Although promising, it will never be foolproof, he added.
“No one tool like fladry will work alone all the time,” he said. “The key to managing this problem is to integrate lots of controls.”