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MI: Illegal Wolf Kills On Rise

By Bob Allen
State wildlife officials say there’s a lot of public anger about the high number of wolves in the Upper Peninsula, and people are taking matters into their own hands.

In the most recent case, a court in St. Ignace convicted a man for illegally shooting a wolf last December and fined him two thousand dollars. But, state officials also are frustrated because wolves are still given the highest protection under federal law.

No Mistake

Wildlife officials say since last October, they’ve found fifteen wolves with radio collars illegally shot, and there have been a lot more un-collared wolves that they can’t track.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Environment calls it a significant increase over previous years.

Brian Roell, wolf coordinator for the DNRE in Marquette, says these aren’t the usual cases of hunters shooting wolves by mistake.

“I think a lot of times people were just mistaking animals for coyotes,” he says. “But now when you’re seeing stuff taken out of the normal hunting seasons I think folks know full well what they’re shooting.”

Should Wolves Be So Protected?

Wolves continue to be listed as an endangered species in Michigan, and there are fines, costs and loss of hunting privileges if convicted for killing one.

Both state and federal wildlife agencies say the gray wolf is fully recovered in the Upper Great Lakes region and they’re pushing to take it off the protected list, but groups such as the U.S. Humane Society are fighting back in court.

Howard Goldman, in the Humane Society’s Minneapolis office, says the law requires more than recovery in a few states.

“Until the wolf numbers are restored to a significant portion of its former range it must remain endangered or threatened,” he says.

The Humane Society says so far the animals are found in about 5 percent of the places where they used to be.

But state wildlife managers say it would be nearly impossible for wolves to spread into the forty-nine states, where they once were found.

Russ Mason is head of the DNRE wildlife division: “So we need to deal with the practical reality that they are recovered in places where they can exist and flourish. And that’s about as good as it’s going to get.”

Illegal Kills Not The Answer

When it comes to conflicts between humans and wolves state biologist say their hands are tied. Right now, they need federal permission to kill wolves that are attacking livestock or pets. And the law requires them to try non-lethal means first. Typically that means capturing and moving a problem wolf. But officials say that amounts to moving the problem to someone else’s backyard.

What the state wants is blanket permission to kill any wolf that’s causing a problem. And the state’s wolf coordinator, Brian Roell, says there’s growing demand from the public for a wolf hunting season.

“If that’s your goal, to have some sort of legal harvest system in the state of Michigan, illegal killing is not how to get there because this just gives fuel to those groups that want to keep wolves on the endangered species list,” he says.

Problems With Wolves

Wildlife officials say so far this year wolves have killed two dozen livestock, more than in any previous year.

They do compensate farmers for lost animals, but they say what would really ease the pressure is to remove wolves from the protected list. That would allow managers to step in immediately to deal with conflicts.

But Howard Goldman with the Humane Society says, just because some people are upset about wolves, is no reason not to abide by the law.

“We believe the goal of wolf management must be non-lethal resolution of human conflicts through education. And we would oppose any efforts therefore to relist the wolf in Michigan or throughout the Midwest,” he says.

There are just over 550 wolves in the U.P. The state’s original recovery goal was for about half that number.

Russ Mason, the head of wildlife for the DNRE, says it’s the legal conflict over the past few years that’s taking its toll. First taking the wolf off the protected list then putting it back on then off then on again until wildlife managers and people who live with wolves feel like they have no control.

“The real tragedy here is that we’ve taken a conservation success story and have turned it into an opportunity to polarize communities and frankly lose trust between government agencies and the public in a way that will take decades to recover,” he says.

And Mason says, with two small wolf packs now in Northern Lower Michigan, the likelihood is high for more wolf – human conflicts in the years to come.