A spate of illegal wolf killings in the Eastern Upper Peninsula is probably a good gauge of the level of public frustration with the predatory animals, wildlife biologists say, reporting that hunters and farmers are two groups who would like to see wolves taken out of federal protection because they are concerned about predation on deer and livestock.
In Germfask, a Bay City man illegally shot three wolves in January when they came to a bait pile at his hunting camp at night. Two other cases remain unsolved. In Luce County, a wolf was shot south of Newberry Friday, February 11, and placed in the middle of County Road 405. Another wolf was shot in Chippewa County Friday, February 18, then dumped on the side of Curley Lewis Road. Investigations are underway on the most recent shootings and rewards are offered for information leading to an arrest. The fact that both were conspicuously placed on busy roads leads investigators to speculate that someone may be trying to send a message with the shootings, said Debbie Munson Badini of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Killing the animals is illegal because they are on the federal endangered species list and are listed as nongame species in Michigan. Repeated efforts to have them removed from the list, going back to 2003, have always been met with successful legal appeals from groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, that want to keep the animals protected. As recently as 2009, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service took wolves off the protected list in March, only to put them back on in July. Determining whether the animals will remain inviolate or whether people will be allowed to kill wolves is a decision that has been bounced around so much in recent years that the public has become increasingly frustrated, said Skip Hagy of the DNR.
“There is a lot of frustration with folks on this end of the U.P. with the number of wolves that are out there,” Mr. Hagy told The St. Ignace News Friday, February 25. “There is, I would say, a low tolerance level in the area for wolves. People are taking action now, for whatever reason.”
Terry Minzey, wildlife supervisor for the EUP, sees the same frustration, particularly from farmers and hunters. The reason the wolf is still on the endangered species list, he said, is political.
“There is quite a bit of frustration, and we’ve been far above the recovery goal for a number of years with this animal,” Mr. Minzey said. “The setbacks to the delisting process are based not on biology, but on politics. We have a large number of predators out on the landscape. Deer numbers are down, and that’s due to several tough winters, but people see those predators around and they put two and two together. We do want to get these animals off the endangered species list, but right now our hands are tied.”
Last year’s wolf census shows a population of 557 animals in the Upper Peninsula, and the numbers are expected to be about the same when this winter’s study is completed. In the state, the population has grown in the past 20 years from one pair of wolves to about 580 animals. Their numbers are almost triple the number that wildlife biologists consider the minimum to maintain the population.
It’s a healthy, sustainable population level for the animals, Mr. Hagy said, but those 557 U.P. wolves aren’t causing a lot of people to complain to his department about predation concerns. In fact, in recent months only one complaint has come in, from someone who repeatedly sighted a wolf near his EUP property. The DNR monitored the situation briefly, Mr. Hagy said, but in that case, the animal soon left the area on its own. If necessary, the DNR could have taken steps to try to deter the wolf from the location.
Concerns about the animal’s feeding habits making a dent on the deer population are largely unfounded, said Brian Roell, wolf specialist for the DNR, and, in fact, hunters and winter weather take far more deer every year than the wolves could. Numbers are relatively low for livestock becoming prey, too. But what the department is seeing now is evidence that the wolves may be stretching the limits of their “social carrying capacity” or, in other words, human tolerance.
“As far as social carrying capacity, we are a little above what people want to tolerate,” Mr. Roell said.
Illegal wolf kills are on the rise. In 2007, four wolves were killed in the U.P., seven were confirmed in 2008, 12 in 2009, and 14 in 2010.
Whether they are more than a nuisance is “in the eye of the beholder,” he said.
“The population of wolves is not going to affect the deer herd size,” Mr. Roell said. “However, at local levels changes in the deer herd may be seen, for example, they could affect the herd’s movement and how they respond to bait. Wolves have learned that deer congregate at bait piles. Deer know the wolves are there, too, and may not hang around as long. Their presence may change how deer use the landscape and how people hunt.”
As far as livestock predation, the U.P. is at very low levels compared to Minnesota and Wisconsin, Mr. Roell said, but the area also has fewer cow and calf operations than those states do. Calves are easy prey and a primary target for predators.
“Only about 7% of farms in the U.P. have suffered some wolf predation,” he said, “but we don’t want to downplay it, because even losing a couple of cows can be a big hardship to that farmer.”
Coyotes, he pointed out, take roughly as many U.P. livestock animals as wolves do.
The growth rate that has brought wolves to this point won’t continue, he predicted.
“The wolf population annual growth rate is actually slowing, suggesting that we are reaching that combination of biological and social carrying capacity,” Mr. Roell said. “This is the population level where they’re likely going to stay for the near future.”
Another factor starting to impact the animals is the prevalence of mange, a mite that causes them to itch and lose their fur, exposing their skin and eventually compromising their health, especially in winter, allowing other illnesses like pneumonia to set in.
While Mr. Roell, like Mr. Hagy, hasn’t seen a spike in complaints to his department, he said what tends to worry people about wolves is what he calls “bold behavior,” and it is prevalent in the U.P. wolf population.
“Bold behavior is coming into town, chasing dogs, or walking between houses in daylight hours,” he said. “A lot of it is caused by people feeding deer. If you attract the food source, you’ll attract the predators.”
Part of the public’s frustration about the issue might be the perception that the DNR is indifferent to the concerns about wolves, Mr. Hagy believes – a perception he says is not true.
“We want to work with the people, and we are not insensitive or indifferent,” he said. “In a way, our hands are tied. The more things get stirred up in a negative way, like [the recent shootings], the harder it is” to effectively manage the situation. One eventual solution Mr. Hagy sees would be to offer a limited open season on hunting the wolves to keep their population at a targeted level. If wolves were removed from the federal endangered list, establishing a harvest season on wolves is not a DNR decision. It would take a legislative change.
If wolves are eventually delisted, though, people won’t be able to shoot them at will. Management of the species would still fall to the DNR and be directed by the Natural Resource Commission.
“If they come off the [endangered species] list, people are still supposed to contact us with concerns, but at least there would be more available control methods,” Mr. Hagy said.
Mr. Roell, too, said he wants to get phone calls anytime people have concerns about wolves. He’s tracking the number and type of concerns and will be among those to offer input in the federal decision about delisting the animal.
“I urge people if they are having wolf problems, even something they consider minor, call us and let us make that decision,” Mr. Roell said. “We do lethally control wolves if it becomes a human safety issue. It takes the citizens to notify us, though, of a problem because I need to be able to build a case against these wolves. Call me every day you see that wolf in your backyard if you have to.”
The recent killings are actually counter-productive to the efforts to get the animal off the federally protected list, said Debbie Munson Badini of the DNR.
“Every time a wolf is poached, it makes the delisting process more difficult for us, because we need to be able to show the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that Michigan is going to be able to responsibly manage wolves, not just the DNR, but the citizens,” she said.
Penalties are stiff for killing a federally protected animal, and may involve both state and federal charges. The maximum penalty for poaching a wolf is 90 days in jail or a fine of up to $1,000, or both, plus reimbursement of $1,500 to the state for killing an endangered species. Convictions usually include a suspension of hunting privileges for three years.
In the case of the three wolves shot in Germfask, which was tried in Mackinac County, William Hayward, 58, pled guilty to the killings and also pled guilty to malicious destruction of property for destroying two tracking collars that had been placed on the wolves by the DNR. Claiming he thought they were coyotes, he shot the wolves at his hunting camp. Mr. Hayward was sentenced in 92nd District Court in St. Ignace Monday, February 14, to 365 days in jail, with 90 days to be served immediately and the remaining time suspended if all terms of his 24-month probation are met. Additionally, Mr. Hayward was ordered to pay $3,000 in restitution for the wolves, $590 for the replacement of the tracking collars, and $1,500 in fines and court costs. Mr. Hayward’s hunting privileges were also revoked for three years, and the rifle he used to kill the wolves was confiscated. Federal charges were not pursued in the case because it was settled at the state level, Mr. Hagy said.
Those who may have information about the wolf shootings are asked to call the Report All Poaching hotline at (800) 292-7800, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or to contact their nearest DNR office or conservation officer. It is possible to leave information anonymously while remaining eligible for a reward.
Those with concerns about wolves are also asked to contact these numbers. Conservation officers can assist residents with appropriate methods to deter wolves from a location, including flashing lights, fladry, which is a system of flags strung on a line, and noisemakers. Farmers in the Pickford area, Mr. Roell said, are seeing success from fladry and from using guard dogs near their cattle and sheep herds. A former control method, relocating problem animals to other areas, has been deemed ineffective and hasn’t been used since 2002, Mr. Roell said.
Calling wolves “a hot button issue on both sides,” Mr. Roell said while the animals are despised by some they also have many staunch supporters who want protections kept in place.
Once present in every part of the state before being wiped out by persecution and control methods, the gray wolf’s current population in Michigan is believed to have originated from a single pair that migrated to the Upper Peninsula from populations in Ontario or Wisconsin. In Michigan, wolves will eat deer, almost any small mammal, and insects, nuts, berries, and grasses, and the animals hunt in packs. Typically, a pack of gray wolves will roam an area of at least 100 square miles.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is again considering removing the wolf from the endangered species list. It has already gathered information from scientists and is expected to begin taking public comments on the issue in mid- April or May.