MARQUETTE - The Michigan Natural Resources Commission voted Thursday to approve a limited two-month gray wolf hunt in three wolf management areas in the Upper Peninsula.
Last month, Michigan Department of Natural Resources division chiefs recommended several regulations for a wolf hunt to the NRC. Those regulations establish a harvest of 43 wolves in three areas where wolf-human conflicts - including depredation of livestock and pets and human safety concerns - have been persistent despite employing a number of non-lethal control measures.
DNR officials said Michigan's wolf population has grown significantly since 2000, with the current minimum population estimate of 658, down slightly from last winter. The DNR said the target harvest is not expected to impact the overall wolf population trajectory, based on published scientific research.
"The recovery of Michigan's wolf population has been a remarkable success story," NRC Chairman J.R. Richardson of Ontonagon said Thursday. "Today's decision by the NRC supports ongoing scientific management of this game species, just as voters intended when by an overwhelming margin they approved Proposal G in 1996.
"The public harvest proposal approved by the commission ensures the long-term presence of wolves while providing a valuable tool for managing conflicts between wolves and human populations. This is a thoughtful, science-based decision."
Prior to the NRC decision, state officials consulted with the public, a wolf advisory panel, scientists and DNR officials from Minnesota and Wisconsin, where wolf hunts were held this past winter. The state's wolf management plan was a basis for many of the provisions developed.
The DNR also completed a wolf population survey and reviewed documented wolf conflicts and the effectiveness of control measures.
"This decision was the culmination of a long and thorough process by the NRC," DNR Director Keith Creagh said. "The DNR will continue to work closely with the commission to be certain that Michigan's wolf population is managed according to the principles of sound science."
Opponents hoping to stop a wolf hunt in Michigan have said lawmakers and state officials were rushing to establish a harvest. A coalition called Keep Michigan Wolves Protected gathered more than 250,000 petition signatures in hopes of reversing a law passed in December reclassifying wolves as game species.
If the state verifies enough signatures, the measure would appear before voters in 2014. However, a bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder this week would make the referendum ineffective by ensuring only the Legislature can remove an animal from the list of game species.
Adam Robarge of Marquette worked on the petition drive locally. He said he commends DNR wolf biologists for recommending a plan that is the first in the country whose goal is not to reduce gray wolf populations.
"However, I remain steadfast in the belief that a public hunt is not the answer if our goal is to reduce instances of nuisance wolf behavior, and absolutely this should be a goal of ours," Robarge said. "But the recent data that exists in regard to our specific population leveling off naturally - as well as the wolf hunts that have taken place elsewhere - suggest that public hunting as a management tool may indeed increase these behaviors."
DNR Wildlife Division Chief Russ Mason said the hunt could change wolf behavior over time - making them more wary of people, residential areas and farms - and reduce the abundance of wolves in the management areas experiencing chronic problems.
"We're aiming to decrease the number of conflicts and complaints while maintaining the long-term viability of the wolf population," Mason said.
Robarge said basing management on the fact wolf populations can sustain a 30 percent reduction, while still "growing back" annually, likens wolf management to that of the timber industry.
"It's worth pointing out that although the North American Conservation Model has proven effective over the last 80 or so years, during its tenure the gray wolf was pushed to the brink of extinction," Robarge said. "It was the Endangered Species Act that brought it back to where we stand today."
Wolves were taken off the federal Threatened and Endangered Species List in January 2012 after population recovery goals were met. Wolf populations will be monitored and relisting the species could be considered if populations dip too low.
DNR officials said a total of 1,200 wolf hunting licenses will be available for over-the-counter purchase starting Aug. 3. The 2013 wolf season will open Nov. 15 and run until Dec. 31, or until the target harvest for each wolf management unit is reached. Licenses will be valid for all three wolf management units until each unit is closed.
The bag limit is one wolf per person per year. Firearm, crossbow and bow-and-arrow hunting and trapping will be allowed on public and private lands.
The cost of a wolf hunting license is $100 for residents and $500 for nonresidents.
For each wolf management unit, different primary objectives were identified, along with recommended harvest quotas, including:
The DNR said hunters will be required to report successful harvest over the phone on the day of harvest. Once the target harvest quota is met for a management unit, the entire unit will be closed for the season. Licensed hunters will be required to check daily by phone or online to determine whether any management units have been closed.
Successful hunters must present the carcass to a DNR check station within 72 hours of harvest. DNR staff members will seal the pelt and collect a tooth, female reproductive tracts and harvest location information.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.