By Eric Sharp
Detroit Free Press Outdoors
Starting Jan. 27, barring another reversal by a court, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will allow farmers, hunters and pet owners in the Upper Peninsula to kill wolves that threaten livestock and dogs.
This will bring cheers from thousands of hunters who are convinced that wolves are responsible for everything from decimating the deer population to global warming. It will bring howls of outrage from some environmental groups and animal rights types, who see the wolf as the noble icon of the north woods.
This is the third try since 2007 to take Great Lakes wolves off the endangered species list. So what is it about wolves that gets people so excited?
The truth is that while wolves do kill about 20,000-25,000 deer in the Upper Peninsula each year, that’s a fraction of the number killed by the cold winters, or hunters for that matter.
Reduced logging in the U.P., a result of our economic downturn and higher imports of foreign timber and pulpwood, has increased the acreage of mature forest, which almost certainly had a greater effect on deer numbers than wolves.
In a story Thursday, I wrote about wolves being “re-introduced” to the U.P., but I should have said wolves have “repopulated” the region. While the state did import a handful of wolves several decades ago, and many residents believe the Department of Natural Resources has been dropping them off by the truckload ever since, those first wolves were killed by poachers within months.
The wolves we see now are descendants of packs from Minnesota that spread across northern Wisconsin and came into Michigan on their own four feet.
The population of wolves in the U.P. is no longer a biological issue. That was settled years ago, because there are now about seven times as many wolves as the USFWS recovery plan requires.
It’s a social issue that revolves around how many wolves the people who live there will tolerate and how many wolves the people in other parts of the state and country will tolerate being killed.
Wolves aren’t a real threat to people. The literature searches I’ve done make it clear that attacks on humans are so rare that the odds you’ll be killed in a car crash while driving to hunt are higher than being attacked by wolves.
But there are a lot of ancient myths about wolves attacking people (remember “Little Red Riding Hood”), and we see things like that television commercial in which a guy uses a flaming torch to fend off a wolf pack.
Wolves do kill cattle, deer and domestic dogs. But I think Russ Mason, wildlife chief for the DNR, hit the nail square on the head when he said the underlying reason for Yoopers’ resentment of wolves isn’t that, but is the same reason Montana ranchers don’t want them in their state:
“They don’t like the federal government coming in and telling them it knows how to manage their wildlife better than they do. It’s a taxation without representation kind of thing,” said Mason, a westerner who has worked in Montana, Arizona and Utah. “People tend to see the places they hunt as their land, even if it belongs to the government.”
Mason said that the real question about wolf predation on deer isn’t how many deer they eat but how that impacts deer numbers. If deer live in a place with good habitat where they can reproduce well, then the population can bounce back quickly from wolf predation. But if the deer habitat is poor, then deer numbers might not rebound, even though the wolves don’t kill as many as they do in a place where the habitat is good.
I suspect that next year will see some wolves killed legally by people protecting or claiming to protect domestic animals, and we might even see some legislators try to make the wolf a game animal for a limited hunt in an effort to curry favor with the hunters in their districts.
Mason also confirmed something that I have long believed is a major drawback to baiting deer in wolf country.
“If I live in a (deep) snow area and I set out a lot of bait, wolves are going to figure out that deer come to that bait, and they’re going to wait near the bait pile for them,” he said.
Mason added that hunters who blame wolves for deer declines fail to understand the wolves are only one cause of deer mortality among many.
“We have a bazillion coyotes in the U.P. They also are killers and they eat deer,” he said. And a severe U.P. winter can easily kill 200,000 whitetails, which happened twice in the past decade.
While some people would like to see a bounty on coyotes, Mason said previous experience has taught him that “bounties only encourage guys to pick up flattened coyotes on the road. They don’t do much to control the coyote population.”