By Bridge Magazine
EWEN—Nancy Warren had never thought much about wolves, until a newspaper article in the early 1990s about Michigan’s then-tiny population captured her attention.
Subsequent research into the apex predators — their pack hierarchy, the way they recognize each others’ howls, the “trophic cascade” they trigger in the surrounding environment — drew her into a decades-long mission to advocate for their survival.
“People hate them for reasons that just aren’t true,” Warren said as she sat at the kitchen table in her western Upper Peninsula home, surrounded by wolf art and memorabilia. Warren, executive director the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, attributes the prejudice to “a deeply-ingrained fear.”
Two-hundred-and-fifty miles across the peninsula in Rudyard, Eric Wallis views the animals with suspicion. Like Warren, the fourth-generation U.P. farmer once paid little attention to the area’s wolf population, he said, until lambs started to go missing from his pastures.
Though wildlife officials who have inspected carcasses on Wallis’ property have ruled out wolves as the culprit in those instances, Wallis said he believes wolves are responsible for dozens of missing animals each year from his flock of about 400 adult sheep and 700 lambs. With no carcass, he said, there was nothing to inspect.
“There is no other predator of that size or capability around here,” he said, noting wolves are the only animal he has seen jump the electric fence surrounding his pasture. When that happens, Wallis believes he should have a right to shoot them.
The two U.P. residents stand on opposing sides of an ongoing debate: With gray wolves newly removed from the federal endangered species list, how should Michigan manage the 700 wolves now roaming the Upper Peninsula?
When, and under what circumstances, should livestock owners like Wallis be able to shoot a wolf on their property? Should hunters and trappers be allowed to kill wolves for fun?
While the governor-appointed Michigan Natural Resources Council prepares to decide whether to allow wolf hunting in Michigan, advocates and foes of the iconic and deeply divisive canid are locked in a struggle for influence over the next era of Michigan’s wolf management program.
As perhaps Michigan’s most politically-polarized species, wolves are viewed differently by different groups, though studies suggest most Americans view them favorably.
To Anishinaabe tribes of the Great Lakes region, they’re Ma’iingan, a brother species whose fate is tied to that of their human relatives. To livestock farmers, they’re a business liability. Hunters often see them as competition for deer and other game. Environmentalists value them as a predator whose presence is a litmus test for the landscape’s overall health.
On Isle Royale, for example, wolves prey on moose, affecting the size and behavior of the island’s herd. That, in turn, influences how aggressively moose browse the island’s forests. Too few wolves could mean too much browsing, ultimately destroying the forest and leaving the moose with too little food. Concern about such an ecosystem imbalance prompted the National Parks Service in 2018 to begin importing wolves onto the island.
Wolves once wandered all of the region now known as Michigan, numbering as high as two million across North America. But European settlers began to exterminate them, and government bounties and trapping programs sped up the process. Wolves were erased from the Lower Peninsula by 1935, and had virtually disappeared from the U.P. by 1960.
They remained all-but-absent from Michigan until the 1980s, when they began to migrate from Minnesota and Wisconsin. Since then, their numbers have steadily increased to some 700 today — all of them north of the Mackinac Bridge.
As their population in the U.P. and across the country has grown, advocates and foes have repeatedly battled over just how many wolves is enough.
A pack of wolves trudges through the snow
A pack of wolves trudges through the snow. The predators, once pushed to the brink of extinction as a result of hunting and trapping, now number nearly 700 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The species’ federal legal status has changed six times since 2008, creating brief windows in which it was legal to kill them and triggering bitter political battles in Michigan. During one such window in 2013, Michigan hunters killed 23 wolves.
With federal protections now dissolved, Michigan is again weighing whether to have a hunt.
Under current rules, it’s illegal to kill wolves unless they are caught in the act of killing or wounding livestock or dogs (killing wolves is also allowed in defense of human life, although there has never been a documented wolf attack on a human in Michigan). But a vote of the state Natural Resources Commission, a politically-appointed body that includes three Republicans, three Democrats and one independent, is all that’s needed to establish a hunt.
Commissioners have signaled plans to take up the matter in the coming months.
Too few Yoopers, or too many wolf foes?
State wildlife managers in the Department of Natural Resources say the decision on whether to hunt wolves should come only after the state updates its wolf management plan. The lengthy document has no regulatory teeth, but it is seen as a key tool to help DNR staff and commissioners decide how Michigan should treat wolves, and whether to hunt them.
Wolf advocates and foes are eager to make sure their side is well-represented on the advisory body that will help shape the plan. Immediately after the DNR in March made appointments to a six-member Wolf Management Advisory Council, protests arose on all sides.
Wolf advocates sued the agency, accusing it of stacking the deck in favor of a wolf hunt by appointing wolf hunting proponents to seats reserved for conservation and farming interests.
Native American leaders criticized the DNR’s decision to appoint a Wisconsin resident to a seat reserved for tribal government.
And Upper Peninsula hunting advocates blasted the agency for including only one Yooper on the council. They earned sympathy from Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, who introduced a bill that would require the DNR to appoint only Yoopers to the group. That bill has cleared the Senate and is awaiting consideration in the House.