MARQUETTE - The Michigan House approved a citizen-initiated measure Wednesday that gives the Natural Resources Commission the power to designate game species - including the gray wolf - clearing a path past two upcoming voter referendums to allow future wolf hunts in Michigan.
However, state officials said a wolf hunt this year is "very unlikely" given several complicated factors.
The Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act approved Wednesday on a House vote of 65-43 - which also allows the NRC to issue fisheries orders, creates a $1 million fund to battle invasive Asian carp and provides free fishing and hunting licenses to active military personnel - will not take effect until next March.
Meanwhile, wolves are not currently designated a game species in Michigan and cannot be hunted because two prior laws allowing those provisions have been suspended, pending the outcome of votes on two measures on the ballot in the November general election.
The fall ballot referendums will ask voters whether to uphold Public Act 520 of 2012, which authorized the establishment of the first open hunting seasons for wolves, and Public Act 21 of 2013, which gave the NRC its game species designation power.
If the two wolf ballot proposals are rejected by voters, as wolf hunt opponents would like, the bill approved Wednesday by the House and earlier this month by the Senate would supersede those initiatives.
But under that scenario, the NRC's game species powers would not be restored until March and no wolf hunt could be approved before then.
If the ballot proposals are approved by the electorate in November, as wolf hunt proponents favor, the suspension of the previously passed legislation would be lifted and the NRC powers would be restored and a wolf hunt could be offered after the election.
However, by then it might be too late in the year for the commission to act.
"I wouldn't say 100 percent it won't happen, but I think it's very unlikely," said Michigan Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Debbie Munson-Badini in Marquette.
Badini said the NRC would seek to establish any future hunts based on sound science and the panel would also want to respect the fact the Legislature did not grant immediate effect to the law approved Wednesday.
"I know they wouldn't want to rush anything through," she said.
Wolf hunt opponents vowed to take the Legislature's latest action to court.
"What the Legislature passed today is a patently unconstitutional measure and we're going to sue and knock it out," said Jill Fritz, director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected. "The ballot measure that the Legislature approved bundled together three unrelated measures to push the wolf hunt over the finish line and in the process, violated Michigan's single-issue law requirement.
"We're confident that Michigan courts will reject the Legislature's unconstitutional Act and instead respect the results of the vote this November."
Michigan United Conservation Clubs championed Wednesday's legislative action in approving the measure brought to lawmakers in a signature gathering effort by the Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management, a group of statewide hunting, fishing and trapping organizations.
"We are very thankful to the legislators who voted for sound science, the voters who signed the petition, the organizations who supported it and the tireless volunteers who collected the signatures of almost 300,000 registered Michigan voters," said Dan Eichinger, MUCC executive director. "This is an important step to protecting the rights to hunt, fish and trap in Michigan from radical animal rights organizations."
MUCC said in a written statement: "Because the initiative contains an appropriation, it is not subject to a third referendum by the Humane Society of the United States, or its front group, Keep Michigan Wolves Protected."
George Lindquist, a statewide vice president for MUCC who lives in Negaunee Township, said the state's whole system of wildlife management was under attack.
"Because of Michigan's easy ballot proposal system, HSUS was able to come to Michigan, literally buy two ballot proposals and attempt to make a popularity contest out of wildlife management with their wolf referendums," Lindquist said. "None of the other states that have wolves have this easy of a ballot system, that's why Michigan was targeted."
State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said the bill passed Wednesday had tremendous support from Upper Peninsula sportsmen.
"Sportsmen and conservationists of this state should be commended for bringing this initiative to the Legislature to help stop the anti-hunting groups from using their multi-millions to manipulate Michigan residents into opposing sound management of wildlife," Casperson said.
Lindquist said Michiganders don't vote whether people will be hunting elk or spearing sturgeon or how many antlerless deer tags will be issued.
"There are a number of ways to give input on any of this, but wildlife management should not be determined by who has the most money for TV ads and popular vote," Lindquist said. "Michigan has a system with the DNR and Natural Resources Commission that has been around since 1922."
Fritz has criticized the NRC as being gubernatorial appointees unqualified to make wildlife decisions.
Lindquist said a governor can't "stack the deck" on the NRC because the panel is a bipartisan group serving staggered terms.
"They make decisions based on information from DNR biologists, look at other states' management, take public comment and expert testimony," Lindquist said.
Last year, the NRC allowed a limited wolf hunt in Michigan in three wolf management units in the U.P.
A total of 1,200 wolf hunting tags were sold at $100 each for state residents and $500 for non-residents.
A kill limit of 43 wolves was set, with a total of 23 wolves shot during the hunt, which began Nov. 15 and continued through Dec. 31.