One of the reasons so many RVers love Michigan's Upper Peninsula is because of all the wildlife. And in recent years, the chance, albeit slim, of seeing a wolf has been at least a possibility that has made the place pretty exciting. For the introduction of the grey wolf into Michigan's Upper Peninsula is one of the greatest wildlife management success stories in generations. Where there were none just a couple of decades ago, there are now around 700.
On calm, clear nights, hearing the howls of a wolf pack is a thrill beyond description.
And seeing them, as I did when three of them crossed in front of me while visiting Baraga County on a previous UP trip, is even more thrilling. They are truly magnificent animals.
But the future is uncertain for Michigan's wolves. Under a controversial policy that has sharply polarized many in the UP, the state's Department of Natural Resources is moving ahead with a plan to allow the sport hunting of wolves in several areas across the UP, staring this fall. At the same time, citizen groups and wolf protection activists have countered with petition drives that would put the issue before Michigan voters this November, not once, but twice..
The issue is highly politicalized. A state representative from the far Western UP town of Ironwood claims that there are so many wolves making their way into town that local residents are afraid to send their children outdoors and are forced to stay inside because of the danger. While wolves, like deer, have been spotted in town, we found no evidence of widespread fear, or of rampaging wolves for that matter. There are lots of reports floating around about pets and farm animals being taken by wolves, too, though, on examination, I found many to be wild exaggerations or outright fabrications.
In one of the more sensational stories, a local man who claimed to have had livestock killed by wolves was actually found by investigators to have allowed dead carcasses of animals who died of apparently natural causes to lie around his land. Such a practice would lead to odors which would naturally attract predators. That man had previously been given three donkeys by state officials. Since donkeys are known to keep wolves away, they would have protected his herds. But when officials went to check on the donkeys, they found the animals were neglected, with untrimmed hooves that prevented them from moving. Two of them subsequently died and a third was found “in very poor body condition,” said a state report obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by wolf supporters. “This animal is very weak and likely dehydrated since there is no water provided to the livestock,” said the report. Officials removed the surviving donkey, which is alive and “in a very good new home.”
The report noted that the farmer had also been provided over $1,300 in fencing material to prevent wolves from entering his property. “The fence is now gone and its whereabouts are unknown,” concluded the report.
I mention all this because this same farmer was all over the news earlier this year showing off dead cows he claimed were killed by wolves and talking about how dangerous they were.
I visited with lots of folks who live in areas populated by wolf packs who reported no issues.
“I believe if this hunt goes through we will once again see the wolf all but extinct in the UP,” said Sandy Lahtinen of Ironwood. “When hunters take out an animal here and there, they will take out the alpha males and females. That leaves the packs leaderless and creates lone wolves and that's when you see problems.” Lahtinen has wolves on her property. She is not worried about them. Snow, her 30 year old pony, and a tiny little puppy roam about in her front yard all day.
In Marquette County, Jim and Jackie Winkowski raise and race dog sled teams. They know wolves are in their area. They've seen and heard them. “They are not interested in our dogs,” said Jackie. “They are not interested in being around people at all.”
In the deep and very buggy woods of the Ottawa National Forest near Ewen, we went out looking for wolf signs with Nancy Warren, the Great Lakes regional director for Wolfwatcher, a nonprofit organization dedicated to wolf conservation.
You've heard of the Horse Whisperer. Nancy is the Wolf Howler.
She talks to the wolves by howling in their territory. “Wolves are very territorial,” she says. “Howling is how a wolf checks to see if he is in another pack's territory. The local wolves will howl back, to tell him to move on.” Although we spotted wolf scat, we didn't get any answering howls that day.
How do we know it was wolf poop, you ask? The size (an inch in diameter) and the presence of fur and bones in the fecal matter, explained Nancy. Aren't you glad you asked that now.
Warren is opposing the coming wolf hunt. “Wolves that cause problems already can be taken out by landowners if they endanger livestock or people,” she said. “A hunting season serves no purpose at all. There are only 658 wolves up here. To kill wolves for sport is just not right.”
Nevertheless, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission on Thursday again approved hunting of once-federally protected wolves in the Upper Peninsula under a new state law passed to circumvent a referendum on an earlier hunting law, as called for by an earlier petition drive run by wolf supporters.
State officials dismiss the concerns of the pro-wolf groups. “We anticipate that this limited public harvest could both change wolf behavior over time — making them more wary of people, residential areas and farms — and reduce the abundance of wolves in these management areas that have experienced chronic problems,” DNR Wildlife Division Chief Russ Mason said in a statement. “We’re aiming to decrease the number of conflicts and complaints while maintaining the long-term viability of the wolf population.”
The group Keep Michigan Wolves Protected said it was “deeply disappointed” by the commission’s decision. The group earlier submitted petitions for a November 2014 referendum on the earlier wolf hunt law. That's what promoted the Natural Resource Commission to push through the hunting season, before voters could decide.
“The voters of Michigan — not politicians and bureaucrats — should have their voices heard on whether our state’s fragile wolf population is needlessly hunted for trophies,” group Director Jill Fritz said in a statement. “The NRC should have delayed a decision until the November 2014 election and let the democratic process play out as intended. Instead they have thumbed their noses at Michigan voters and told them their opinions don’t matter.”
Fritz's group submitted ballot said it plans to launch yet another petition drive to collect at least 225,000 signatures needed to place the new law under which the commission approved the hunt Thursday on the November 2014 ballot as well. That means there will be two anti-wolf hunting proposals on the ballot.
But no matter how the issue is decided, it will be too late to stop this year's hunt.
And that should stir up howls of protests from all those who don't think wolves should be considered fair game.