Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Wolves
By STEVE POLLICK
and JEFF BASTING
The thing about wolves in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is that they are like wolves just about everywhere — too often and too much misunderstood.
They are neither warm and- fuzzy, thick-coated pets, like the family dog, nor are they the slack-jawed, slavering black beasts of fairy tales, out to ravage everything from bunnies to babies.
“Bar-room biology is far too rampant,” says Brian Roell, Michigan’s wolf biologist, who has spent years studying the U.P.’s wolves.
“It’s not milk and cookies out there for a wolf. It is like controlled starvation, waiting for your next meal.”
Every winter he and other field workers of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources count wolves as part of their research, and it would not surprise him if this winter the tally reaches 600 or more.
The numbers have been increasing about 10 percent a year the last five years, reaching 584 at last count in about 100 packs, with the larger concentrations occurring in the southern and western portions of the peninsula. Those areas are where white-tailed deer — prime wolf food — are more concentrated.
Mr. Roell said that he cannot say for certain where or when the wolf population will level out; it could be 600, possibly 800.
That would be quite a comeback from 1935, by which time Michigan wolves had been persecuted out of existence. The wolf biologist said that by 1956 an estimated 100 had become reestablished in the 16,000-squaremile U.P. from neighboring Wisconsin and Minnesota and Ontario.
But relentless persecution cut that to just six by 1973, eight years after wolves were legally protected in the state. In 1974 and 1976, respectively, federal and state endangered species laws further protected the wolf, to the point that it now has become a political or at least legalistic football.
“Wolf management has been taken away from the on-the-ground biologist, like me, to the courtroom.”
Thus, with wolves flourishing in upper Michigan, their “endangered” status pingpongs back and forth, a fact which hamstrings their cons e r va t ion and management.
Wolves, Mr. Roell notes, leave a larger than life footprint.
“They go jogging for 10 to 12 hours every day — that’s 365. They put down lots of footprints.”
One radio-collared U.P. wolf was killed in Missouri, 470 miles from home territory.
Wolves, like people, also prefer the path of least resistance, so their many tracks often are laid down right where people are likely to see them — on groomed and packed snowmobile trails and plowed roads.
“Your chances of seeing a wolf,” the biologist said in conclusion, “are a lot better than seeing other wildlife species.”
In contrast the U.P. is home to 15,000 to 18,000 black bears, which are highly reclusive, hibernate in winter, and are another large predator.
Such numbers dwarf those of U.P. wolves, the biologist noted, “yet people will say it’s the wolves not the bears” that are a concern.
Mr. Roell links it to the Little Red Riding Hood syndrome.
“It has created this fear in people and it’s undeserved.”
He notes that there are no documented wolf attacks on humans in the lower 48 states, and attacks seen in Alaska and Canada are rare and often linked to habituated animals.
Just the simple fact that wolves may come close to rural residences and farms, for example, is easily explained: “They’re curious, just like dogs.”
Wolves, too, often are blamed for a lack of deer in a given region. “Wolves and deer evolved together,” the biologist said. “Deer are what they are because of wolves. It is incorrect to claim that wolves are going to wipe out all the deer. If the deer goes, the wolf goes.”
Mr. Roell notes that nearby Minnesota is home to some 3,000 wolves and still has plenty of deer. A lot of factors figure into deer numbers, he added. Indeed, wolf numbers in the U.P. grow when deer numbers are peaking.
“Wolves are a piece of the pie but not the whole pie.”
Coyotes, bobcats, and bears all kill and eat deer, especially fawns. The same predators also claim occasional livestock, as do dogs. But wolves are easier to blame.
The biggest deer-killer in the U.P. is a severe winter, or worse, successive severe winters, along with condition of the habitat.
“Winter severity is the most important factor in deer survival [and reproductive success].”Another big deerkiller is the motor vehicle, and cyclical outbreaks of diseases such as mange also take a toll.
The biologist nonetheless notes that what is called “social carrying capacity” — humans’ tolerance for wolves — likely is something lower than the pure biological carrying capacity. “We’re probably over the social carrying capacity [tolerance] in many parts of the U.P.”
Only one female in a pack bears pups, usually about five a year. But 70 percent of the pups die the first winter.
Adult wolves live about five years in the wild. For all of which Mr. Roell says: “Being a predator is a tough life.”