2014 03 06 Michigan Wolf
The wolf is a mythical creature, often feared and largely misunderstood. Image: Todd Ryburn

In the 1970s, Michigan's wolves were on the brink of extinction. Poaching and bounties had decimated wolf populations and it looked like they were on a highway to the history books. Fortunately, in an effort to restore the dwindling numbers, wolves were given protected status under the Endangered Species Act. Hunting stopped and the wolf population grew from a measly three animals in 1989 to a healthy estimate of over 650 by 2013.

So how did the state celebrate the impressive recovery of these once-threatened predators? By shooting them ... After they were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2012, Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed legislation declaring wolves fair game for hunting, a decision that was met with a wave of dissent from animal activists who had fought so hard to restore wolf numbers.

As is often the case with anything involving hunting or proposed animal culls, the whole affair is shrouded in a thick fog of controversy. Michigan farmers claim livestock losses while other residents allege that wolves are regularly spotted lurking on their properties. Both are thin justifications for the hunt and have come under heavy scrutiny from wildlife advocacy groups and the media.

Records from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) do show that some livestock has succumbed to predation by wolves. But they also point out that a single farmer accounts for more reports of cattle killed and injured by wolves than all other farmers since the DNR has been reviewing attacks. It seems cattle farmer John Koski may just be the biggest threat facing Michigan's wolves. You see, dead animals are difficult to resist if you're an opportunistic hunter like the wolf, and Mr Koski's tendency to leave cattle carcasses in his fields for days on end probably accounts for the high number of incidents on his farm (not to mention the state-supplied electric fence that has disappeared or the guard mules that have wound up dead or injured).

2014 03 06 Michigan Wolf Conservation Timeline

In Michigan, farmers are compensated by the state for livestock losses to wolves. So far John Koski has received an estimated $38,000 from the state to pay for his cattle losses and even the Department of Natural Resources are "kind of washing our hands of him,” according to DNR wildlife biologist Brian Roell.

So the evidence seems to suggest that wolf attacks are not a primary cause of livestock loses (unless your name is John Koski). But what about the threat these much-feared animals pose to Michigan residents? Again it's a dense forest of accusations and allegations. Adam Bump, the state’s furbearer specialist, argues that locals are frightened of wolf attacks. This despite the fact that there have been no recorded instances of wolf attacks in the state. Not one. Bump's retraction of a statement made during an interview with Michigan Radio, where he claimed wolves have been spotted "staring at people through their sliding glass door while they're pounding on it [and the wolves are] exhibiting no fear", doesn't really make for convincing stuff.

But why then is there a push to hunt the recently restored populations? Many argue that there is only one possible motive. Wolves are being killed for sport, for trophies, for thrills or simply because of a long-standing, unjustified hatred. Nancy Warren, the Great Lakes regional director for the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, says: "The facts speak for themselves and it just shows this is all politically motivated and has nothing to do with science."

Many Michigan citizens are doing what they can to have the wolf hunt outlawed. In March 2013, a petition calling for a referendum to undo the call to arms and protect the wolves garnered more than a quarter of a million signatures.

The petition, however, did little to overturn the hunt. The Michigan legislature responded to the public outcry by handing power over to the unelected Natural Resources Commission (NRC) to decide which animals can be hunted. As a regulatory body, any decisions made by the NRC are not reversible by public vote. You can probably see where this is going … the NRC approved the wolf hunt for July, nullifying the efforts of the pro-wolf camp.

But residents of the Great Lake state are not about to take the news lying down. Conservation group Keep Michigan Wolves Protected is circulating a new petition with the aim of overturning critical laws that currently allow wolves to be culled.

It's a very tricky road to navigate. Concerns about livestock predation or potential threats to human safety should obviously not be ignored; however, it seems a wolf hunt is probably not going to solve anything. As it stands farmers are legally allowed to shoot and kill problem animals that they find on their property, plus the state compensates for livestock losses from wolves. It's obvious that sustainable solutions are required that will allow farmers and wolves to coexist. The bigger argument here is whether or not misinformation and scaremongering are tainting science-based policy making.

Header image: Lou Gold