By ANTHONY CEPAK
Capital News Service
LANSING — When voters head to the polls on Nov. 4, they’ll find two ballot proposals concerning wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula.
However, hunting is only one part of an effort to manage the state’s wolf population, and only one part of the larger issue, according to researchers at Michigan State and Michigan Technological universities.
Michigan removed wolves from its protected species list in 2011, and debate began in 2012 over whether to designate it as a game species, allowing establishment of a hunting season.
“There are economic concerns, concerns about the deer population and cultural concerns” that also need to be examined, said Meredith Gore, an associate professor in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department and Criminal Justice School at MSU.
Gore led a survey project in 2013 for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to gauge public opinion about wolves and wolf hunting.
“The result of the survey validated these concerns,” Gore said. “The people representing all the different stakeholders were getting the concerns right.”
The study collected public opinion through a combination of public meetings and an email survey.
One aspect of the debate is the cultural dimension wildlife represents, in particular with Native Americans.
“A lot of Native American tribes in our state that have wolves as a part of their creation story,” she said.
But Gore said regardless of the public’s view on hunting, the number-one concern found by the survey was human encounters with wolves.
“They are carnivores, and so they have that pack behavioral ecology,” she said. “There are instances where human populations and wolf populations overlap, so there is the potential to have a flashpoint for conflict.”
Danger aside, there are positive attitudes about wolves as well.
“People like having the opportunity to photograph wolves in the wild, and they like hiking and being in nature, and wolves are a part of that,” Gore said. “People like knowing that an ecosystem can support a pack of wolves.”
Michigan Tech Research Professor Rolf Peterson has been studying wolves on Isle Royale in Lake Superior for more than 40 years.
He estimates the current population in Michigan – on the U.P. mainland and Isle Royale – to be between 600 and 700.
“The number of wolves has increased to almost 700 but it is not possible to say if they are stabilizing near that number,” Peterson said. “I believe the number in the past two years was 600-700, and it’s possible that represents the level that they can achieve, given food supply and mortality factors.”
During winter, a natural ice bridge forms on Lake Superior allowing wolves to move between the U.P. mainland and Isle Royale 56 miles away.
Crossing the St. Mary’s River in the Eastern U.P., the distance between Michigan and Ontario is much shorter, but Peterson said nothing suggest wolf populations are moving over ice anywhere other than between the mainland and Isle Royale.
They travel only between Isle Royale and the mainland, he said.
With an estimated wolf population of more than 7,700, Ontario has allowed hunting as a part of its wolf management plan since the 1980s, according to the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
As in Michigan, Ontario’s goal is providing a number of strategies, including hunting, as part of an overall wolf management plan. Other approaches include population monitoring, research and habitat conservation.
MSU’s Gore said across the Great Lakes region, states handle wolf management differently and allow different types of hunting and trapping.
“Each state has their own set of different stakeholders,” she said.
While her study for the DNR found that most of the people surveyed favor wolf hunting, she said it’s because those advocating for hunting have the loudest voice.
“The people who show up to meetings are either for or against something,” Gore said. “So the people with the strongest opinions came to these meetings.”