U.S. wildlife officials plan to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, a move that will almost certainly re-ignite Michigan’s fierce, long-running debate over wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula.
Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was expected to announce the proposal during a Wednesday speech before a wildlife conference in Denver, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Spokesman Gavin Shire said in an interview with the Associated Press.
The decision to lift protections is based on gray wolves successfully recovering from widespread extermination last century, Shire said. He said further details would be made public during a formal announcement planned in coming days.
Many sportsmen see Great Lakes gray wolves as a recovered species that must be managed — through hunting — to limit depredation of livestock, dangerous encounters with people and dogs, and undesirable reductions in the number of deer. But many other Michigan residents — including those who rejected wolf hunting in 2014 ballot measures — say it would be an unnecessary sport hunt of a species that isn’t out of the woods yet on its recovery.
“We believe decisions regarding the management of wolves, or any species, should be based on the best available science, and that science says wolves need continued protection,” said Molly Tamulevich, Michigan director for the nonprofit Humane Society of the United States, a leading opponent of wolf hunting in Michigan.
Attempts to remove protections for the wolves usually “are rooted in myths and fears, rather than science,” she said.
Michigan held its controversial first, firearm-only wolf hunt in November and December 2013, with hunters killing 23 wolves in designated areas of the U.P.
Michigan voters then rejected wolf hunting in two statewide ballot measures in November 2014. But the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder, at the urging of hunting groups, restored the wolf hunt that year, before a 2014 federal district court ruling again restored Endangered Species Act protections to Great Lakes wolves — the third time wolves had been removed from the endangered species list and put back on. A federal Court of Appeals affirmed the district court ruling in 2017.
Wolves were hunted to near-extinction in the Upper Midwest, including Michigan, over the early 20th Century. The Upper Peninsula had only three wolves as recently as 1989. But the wolf population rebounded significantly in subsequent years, assisted by protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The U.P. had 662 wolves found among 139 packs in the winter of 2017-18.
A gray wolf. (Photo: Gary Kramer, Associated Press, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The wolf population “recovered a long time ago,” and wolves no longer need federal protection, said Tony Demboski, who lives in Quinessec, near Iron Mountain in the western Upper Peninsula. Demboski is president of the Upper Peninsula Sportsmen’s Alliance, a coalition of more than 50 hunting clubs and businesses.
“Outstanding,” Demboski said of the news from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “(Wolves) are very detrimental to our deer herd, and we already have enough problems with the snow and the cold.”
Demboski said he does not support another near-extermination of wolves in Michigan.
“Nobody wants to kill all of the wolves — that’s not the idea,” he said. “But a scientific management of what we can have. We do it for everything else – deer, elk, moose, even our fisheries. Manage it.”
If finalized, the federal proposal will allow trophy hunting and trapping of wolves in the Great Lakes states, and will slow or completely halt recovery of wolves in more of their former range, said Collette Adkins a senior attorney with the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, in a release.
“This disgusting proposal would be a death sentence for gray wolves across the country,” she said. “The Trump administration is dead set on appeasing special interests that want to kill wolves.”