LANSING - Michigan's first sanctioned wolf hunt is slated to begin Nov. 15. It could also be the state's last one.
"It's a good thing to get this thing off the ground and started," said Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who sponsored the bill establishing the state's first wolf hunting season. "We're coming at it with a pretty light number, which is good, and we'll take it from there."
The Upper Peninsula hunt will continue until Dec. 31 or once 43 wolves are killed, whichever comes first. Licenses went on sale last month, and officially sold out Oct. 4.
Although 1,200 licenses were sold, the law allows only about 7 percent of the state's 658 wolves to be killed. All those hunters will have the opportunity to kill a wolf before the cap is reached. Hunters must call the Michigan Department of Natural Resources every morning they plan to hunt to see if the 43-animal quota has been reached.
Supporters of the hunt argue it curtails the danger wolves pose to livestock and pets.
But the hunt has been met with sharp opposition from the group Keep Michigan Wolves Protected. It opposed Casperson's bill and collected enough petition signatures citizens to put the matter up to a vote on next year's ballot.
To head off that statewide vote, Casperson countered with another bill giving the seven-person Michigan Natural Resources Commission power to determine which game can be hunted. Previously, only the Legislature could do that.
Soon after that measure was signed into law, the commission approved this year's hunt. That effectively negated the efforts of opponents trying to get the issue on the ballot because even if a majority vote to block the first law, the commission would still hold authority to put wolves on the list of approved game species.
The second law giving that authority to the commission was clearly meant to bypass the first referendum, said Jill Fritz, president of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.
"It was the Legislature basically saying, 'We don't care what the voters think, or what they want.' They wanted their wolf hunt, and they were going to do whatever they had to do," Fritz said.
Keep Michigan Wolves Protected then started a new challenge to wolf hunts by collecting petition signatures to end the commission's authority to set the hunt. If there are enough signatures, both anti-hunting proposals could be on next year's ballot.
However, Casperson points to a 1996 ballot proposal that gave the Natural Resources Commission power to regulate the taking of game in Michigan. That proposal gave the commission power to regulate the taking of game, including rules and dates for hunting seasons.
Critics are wrong in arguing the commission shouldn't have the authority to allow a wolf hunt, he said.
"When I heard that we're taking the voice away from the people, I had a hard time digesting that in the sense that the commission was put in place by the people." he said. "And it said their decisions must be based upon sound science."
Although both sides in the debate claim to have science on their side, John Vucetich, an associate professor of Michigan Technological University's School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, said the facts don't support a hunt - especially if the main claim is that it will decrease the number of attacks on livestock.
"The Natural Resources Commission couldn't possibly be motivated by sound science," said Vucetich. "If you were motivated by sound science, you would never come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with livestock depredations is to have a general harvest."
Taking out 43 wolves will make little to no impact on livestock attacks, he said.
"If you do the calculations to figure out how many wolves you'd have to kill, the math doesn't add up," he said. "You'd have to kill hundreds of wolves to reduce livestock losses."
Some conservation groups approve of the hunt.
For example, Michigan United Conservation Clubs supports hunting and trapping, provided "sound, science-based conservation principles are followed," and says the hunt will benefit the U.P. ecosystem over time.
"It's a longer-term goal. Certainly a one-year harvest is not going to really put a dent in the population," said Amy Trotter, resource policy manager for the organization.
"We feel that the hunt that's coming up this year is based on good scientific principles of wildlife management. We're being very conservative this year, and for future hunts we're going to learn a lot," she said.
While the long-term effect won't be known for years, Vucetich said many scientists believe a small hunt such as this year's could make attacks worse by causing wolves to scatter into new, unknown locations.
"Having resident wolves that have been there for a while is generally better for a livestock owner than having new wolves coming though to a new area," he said. Those wolves are not familiar with where the wild prey are, and they're threatened by wolves that do live in that area so there's a good possibility those wolves are going to be interested in taking the easiest prey possible, which would be livestock."
But he said the biggest problem is state officials' lack of a defined goal.
"The DNR has no stated goal for the harvest," Vucetich said. "That's atrocious. You can't have wildlife management going on with no stated goal. That's not sound science and not sound wildlife management.