By Garret Ellison
LANSING, MI — The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled a 2014 law that enables state wildlife officials to allow wolf hunting if the animals are ever dropped from the U.S. Endangered Species List in Michigan is unconstitutional.
In an opinion released Wednesday, Nov. 23, the three-judge panel overturned a 2015 Michigan Court of Claims ruling that upheld the state Natural Resources Commission’s authority to classify gray wolves as a game species.
The appellate ruling in favor of the citizen group Keep Michigan Wolves Protected (KMWP), which challenged the state’s authority to hunt wolves, said the Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, also known as Public Act 281 of 2014, violates the “title-object clause” of the Michigan constitution.
The group issued a statement praising the decision.
“This was a blatant power grab by politicians to take away voting rights from Michigan citizens,” said KMWP director Jill Fritz.
“We are delighted the court has rejected the legislature’s outrageous attempt to subvert the will of the people of Michigan, and declared unconstitutional the legislature’s attempt to force a wolf hunt. This ruling restores the people’s decision, in two statewide votes, overwhelmingly rejecting the trophy hunting and commercial trapping of the state’s small population of wolves.”
Keep Michigan Wolves Protected argued the circulated petition resulting in the 2014 law, “routinely told electors targeted for signature” the law would provide free hunting licenses for veterans and prevent invasive species without mentioning that it would permit wolf hunting, nullify pending referendums to the contrary, and make the act referendum-proof.
Since the title of the propose law didn’t inform the public or legislature of the law’s actual effects, the group argued it was unconstitutional.
In 2015, KMWP lost in the Court of Claims, which said the 2014 law’s general purpose was to “manage fish, wildlife, and their habitats” and the failure to mention wolves was “germane, auxiliary, or incidental” to managing wildlife.
The appellate judges, however, agreed with KMWP’s argument that that the “provision of free licenses to active members of the military is not germane to the scientific management of fish, wildlife, and their habitats, nor does it directly relate to, carry out, or implement this principal object of PA 281.”
The panel wrote that “we cannot presume that the Legislature would have passed PA 281 without the provision allowing free hunting, trapping, and fishing licenses for active members of the military” and because it’s impossible to know what weight that provision would have exerted in the legislature, legal precedent precludes severing the law into pieces and the entire act is unconstitutional.
“Plaintiff’s description regarding how PA 281 came into being conjures up images of a Trojan Horse, within which the ability to hunt wolves was cleverly hidden. Plaintiff claims that the initiating petition was strategically drafted in such a way as to appeal to potential signers by touting that it would ensure that only sound scientific principles would govern the taking of fish and game, rather than allowing the selection of game to become the subject of legislative footballs, that it would support our active-military members by letting them hunt and fish for free, and that it would provide money to combat the spread of Asian carp — all of which have excellent “curb appeal” — while surreptitiously slipping inside the body of the act a reenacting provision to ensure that regardless of the referenda votes on PA 520 and PA 21, wolves would be on the game species list, as would associated wolf hunting provisions, and that the appropriations provisions made the whole package referenda-proof. However accurate the plaintiff may be in its assessment of why PA 281 came into being, our analysis is not about policy. Rather, our decision must be based on an analysis of the dictates of Michigan’s constitution.”
“Because PA 281, as drafted, violates the Title-Object Clause of the Michigan Constitution, the act is constitutionally infirm. Consequently, we reverse the order granting summary judgment for defendants and remand the matter for entry of an order granting summary judgment for plaintiff, in accord with this opinion.”
The opinion was authored by judges Donald Owens, Joel Hoekstra and Jane Beckering.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has tried four times in the last 15 years to delist Great Lakes gray wolves. The courts have reversed each attempt.
Keep Michigan Wolves Protected wants to see wolves “downlisted,” as opposed to delisted from U.S. Endangered Species List, which allows for lethal control of problem wolves, but not game season hunting.
Michigan held its first and only wolf hunt in late 2013, a year after federal protections were dropped in the region. Twenty-three wolves were killed. There was no hunt in 2014, when statewide voters overturned enabling laws.
In Dec. 2014, a federal judge overturned the last delisting of Great Lakes wolves. In a controversial opinion, the judge ruled the Endangered Species Act does not allow the government to declare a “distinct population segment” of a species recovered and then drop protection within that zone on a map.
At last count, there were 3,700 wolves in the Western Great Lakes population. About 630 are in Michigan, 800 are in Wisconsin and the bulk, 2,220 or so, are in Minnesota — the one U.S. state in the whole Lower 48 where the population never dipped enough to be listed as “endangered,” only threatened.
While delisting supporters point to those numbers as evidence of population recovery, opponents say wolves have yet to repopulate their historic range after being nearly exterminated in the U.S. decades ago.
The delisting debate has split conservation and environmental groups over the issue of hunting, which states could allow if protections are dropped. Even biologists who study wolves don’t speak with a unified voice on the issue.
Wolves are presently listed as endangered in Michigan and cannot be killed except in the defense of human life. There have been numerous bills in Congress since the federal order to strip wolf protection in several states.