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MI: Michigan wolf population at nearly 700 but leveling off

The latest biennial survey conducted this winter estimates the predator species total at 695, divided among 143 packs.

 Photo courtesy: Isle Royale National Park; female wolf already released on the island.
Photo courtesy: Isle Royale National Park; female wolf already released on the island. (WLUC)

By Associated Press and JOHN FLESHER, Environmental Writer

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) – Michigan’s gray wolves appear to have stabilized at a healthy level three decades after beginning a remarkable comeback in the Upper Peninsula, wildlife officials said Monday.

The latest biennial survey conducted this winter estimated the predator species’ population at 695, divided among 143 packs, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The typical pack has around five wolves.

The survey was conducted from December through March, before this year’s pups were born — when the numbers are lowest in a particular year, officials said.

“Our survey results continue to demonstrate that Michigan’s wolf population has recovered,” said Dan Kennedy, acting chief of the DNR’s Wildlife Division.

Wolves occasionally are spotted in the northern Lower Peninsula but no established population is known to exist there.

Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior has an additional 15 wolves that are not included in the state survey.

Crews with the state DNR and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services develop estimates by searching roads and trails for wolf tracks. They focus on areas with telltale signs such as territorial marking and indications of breeding, wildlife biologist Dean Beyer said.

Wolves had mostly disappeared from most of the Lower 48 states in the last century because of shooting, trapping and poisoning, with support from government bounty programs.

They were added to the federal endangered species list in the 1970s, which made killing them illegal except to save human life. Afterward, a remnant population began migrating from Minnesota to northern Wisconsin and into Michigan’s U.P.

Numbers grew steadily. By 2004, wolves had reached the recovery goal of staying above 200 for five consecutive years. They were dropped from the state’s list of threatened and endangered species in 2009.

The population has leveled off over the past nine years and appears to have reached a “carrying capacity” of 600 to 700, said Cody Norton, a department wildlife management specialist.

The term refers to the number of wolves that can be supported by available food and habitat — and that humans will tolerate.

About 60% of wolves fitted with radio collars and later found dead were killed by humans, primarily poachers or motorists, Norton said.

Wolves retain endangered status under federal law. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried repeatedly to remove them from the list, only to be overruled by courts in response to lawsuits by environmental and animal-rights groups that contend the species remains vulnerable.

The federal agency again proposed lifting protections in most of the nation — including the western Great Lakes region that includes Michigan — in March 2019 but has yet to take final action. Once it does, management authority will revert to the states unless courts intervene.

Michigan’s only legal wolf hunt since the species’ recovery was in 2013, when the state briefly was in charge before a judge restored the endangered classification. A total of 22 wolves were killed.

The next year, opponents pushed two statewide ballot initiatives that won majority approval. However, the Legislature superseded them by empowering the appointed Natural Resources Commission to designate game animals.

That could enable the commission to schedule more wolf hunting seasons if the state regains control. But it wouldn’t happen right away, Norton said.

The DNR first would update its management plan, considering alternative means of preventing livestock depredation or attacks on hunting dogs. It also would survey Michigan residents and consult with native tribes.

Another reason to move slowly is the likelihood of additional court battles, Norton said.

“Before we’d consider any recommendation, we feel it’s necessary for the legal status of wolves to be more permanently established,” he said. “Even if it’s delisted in the near future, we would not want to jump on that at the drop of a hat. We want to be sure it’s something that sticks, so we don’t get jerked back and forth.”