DNR biologist talks predators

Wolves in Michigan are a polarizing issue. One side wants the species to be harvested while the other side wants it protected. The myths and facts surrounding the wolf were the focus of a recent program at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

NEGAUNEE — Is there any mammal more misunderstood than the wolf?

Dispelling misconceptions about this animal was the purpose of a Tuesday program at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum entitled “Michigan Wolves: Myths vs. Facts.”

Presenting the program was Brian Roell, a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, who noted there tend to be two polarizing sides to the wolf issue: people who want to protect them, and others who want every wolf dead.

“Both sides are equally guilty of using facts and myths incorrectly,” Roell said.

The DNR, he said, finds itself “getting squished” in the middle of the road. However, he stressed the DNR is not a decision-making body. In Michigan, decisions are made by the Natural Resources Commission. The DNR provides input and gives it suggestions, but the NRC — the eight-member group appointed by the governor — sets regulations.

Folklore hasn’t always been kind to the wolf. Consider the “big bad wolf” depicted in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the famous children’s tale.

“It’s this unnatural fear that we have of them,” Roell said.

Nowhere are people told about the role wolves play in the ecosystem or what it means to be a large predator, he said.

In fact, wolf attacks are extremely rare, and more people die from wildlife like bees and wasps, often due to allergic reactions, and through interactions like vehicle-deer accidents, he said.

Proper identification of wolves also can be problematic, with wolves sometimes mistaken for another Michigan canid, the coyote.

That’s understandable.

“If I don’t get a good look at it and it’s at a distance, I’m not sure sometimes,” Roell said.

However, he noted there are things people can notice to tell the difference: Wolves typically are heavier and have a broader muzzle, while coyotes have a more pointed face and have shorter legs.

One Michigan myth is that “super coyotes” — wolf-coyote hybrids — are being propagated, he said. However, that interbreeding isn’t taking place.

“Generally, wolves kill coyotes anytime they get a chance,” Roell said.

As a species, wolves are interesting animals that face many challenges in their lives.

In an article entitled “All About Wolves” on the website isleroyalewolf.org, the life of a wolf is difficult and usually short. The chances of pup survival are highly variable; in some years, for some packs, most or all pups die while in other years, most or all survive.

Of the wolves that survive their first 6 to 9 months, most die by age 3 or 4. Even in a healthy wolf population, one in four or five adult wolves dies every year.

The “leaders of the pack” — alpha wolves — tend to be the longest lived, commonly living between six and nine years.

“Behavior-wise, our wolves do all the things your pet does,” Roell said.

For example, a wolf will cower with its tail between its legs.

“That’s all pack mentality,” Roell said.

In Michigan, white-tail deer are the main food source for wolves, he said, with beaver making up between 15 to 20 percent of their diet.

“Wolves are not out there chasing squirrels and snowshoe hares and ruffed grouse and all that kind of stuff,” Roell said. “It’s just not worth it for them. They would starve to death if that’s all they had to eat.”

However, with their jaw strength, a wolf will eat just about the entire animal. Roell noted that if someone finds bone chips in scat, it’s probably from a wolf.

One problem that can arise from the wolf population in the Upper Peninsula, though, involves livestock.

Roell acknowledged wolves do kill livestock in Michigan, but so do coyotes and bears. However, the state compensates farmers for the loss of livestock when they’re killed by a predator, which includes wolves, coyotes and cougars.

Wolf management

The history of wolf management in Michigan has been varied, to say the least. From 1817 to 1960, there were government bounties and a state trapper system set up to control wolves, which were eradicated from the Lower Peninsula in 1935. In the Upper Peninsula, the wolf population was down to 100 wolves by 1956, and decreased to a mere six in 1973.

A shift in management took place in 1965 when wolves were afforded legal protection in Michigan, and in 1974 were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The wolf was listed as a Michigan endangered species in 1976.

Through the 1980s, wolves filtered into the U.P., Roell said, with reproduction documented in 1989. The Michigan recovery goal was to get the wolf off the Endangered Species list, which was 200 or more for five consecutive years.

That was achieved in 2004.

However, in 2002 the species had been moved to threatened status, he said, with the federal classification lowered to threatened in 2003. In 2005, that federal classification was moved back to endangered. Wolves were delisted in 2007, but in 2009 were listed again as endangered following a lawsuit in 2008.

Things changed in 2012 when the feds delisted the wolves, Roell said, but again were sued in 2014 and the animals were put back on the list.

In June, the DNR reported the Michigan wolf population has remained relatively stable over the past four wolf surveys, the most recent of which occurred last winter. DNR wildlife biologists estimated there was a minimum of 662 wolves found among 139 packs across the U.P. this past winter, with the 2016 minimum population estimated at 618 wolves.

Roell said track surveys and radio collars are used to count wolves, but technology now allows GPS collars to be used to upload data to a satellite.

Whatever the count method, wolves in Michigan remain a federally protected species that may be killed only in defense of human life.

“We’re still battling whether wolves should be delisted or not,” Roell said.

The Michigan Wolf Management Plan that came out in 2008, and was updated in 2015 with a list of accomplishments, has no numeric goal, he said.

“Our plan says that you can have as many wolves as you want as long as you are controlling the negative aspects of wolves,” Roell said.

Unfortunately, what he has found is that the plan has been “ignored and dismissed by both sides of the wolf fence.”

What is being done is managing population sizes, looking at human safety, studying depredation and wolf/prey relationships, and other issues, he said.

The big issue, Roell pointed out, is the wolf harvest.

“The real crux of that is: Is it a recreational opportunity or a conflict resolution of one?” Roell said.

This issue also has been going back and forth throughout the years.

New legislation, Public Act 520 of 2012, was signed into law, which added the wolf to the list of game species. The NRC asked the DNR for a recommendation, which after public meetings decided that recommendation to be a public harvest based on conflict resolution, Roell said.

However, a group named Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, which did not advocate the killing of wolves for any reason, formed and collected signatures for referendums on the issue. Roell said the law was suspended until the 2014 vote.

In 2013, Public Act 21 was introduced, which was legislation that would authorize the NRC to designate game species, and that same year, a wolf hunt was designated with a quota of 43 animals in the U.P. Twenty-two wolves were harvested, he said.

However, Roell said another group, the Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management, wanted to get in “the referendum game” and started to collect signatures so the NRC would be allowed to designate a game species, give free military licenses and appropriate work for invasive species.

“If there’s money tied to the law, you cannot collect signatures, so they knew what they were doing,” Roell said.

This all became law without going to the ballot, so that meant wolves against could be hunted, he said.

In the 2014 general election, Michigan voters rejected two referendums on the trophy hunting and trapping of the state’s wolf population. Proposal 1 would have established a harvest season on wolves, while Proposal 2 would have granted the NRC the authority to designate wolves and other animals as game species.

Roell said a Michigan Court of Claims dismissed a Keep Michigan Wolves Protected lawsuit challenging the CPWM initiative, but a three-judge panel in 2015 overturned that ruling. Then in 2016, Senate Bill 1187, which, among other things, would include the wolf in the definition of “game” and authorize the NRC to designate a species as game, took effect. The bill also appropriated $1 million to the DNR for fiscal year 2016-17 to implement necessary management practices related to aquatic invasive species.

Because of that $1 million attached to it, the legislation was referendum-proof, Roell said.

So, as it sits now, wolves are a game species in Michigan, but since they are federally endangered, they cannot be hunted, he said.

So, which side is right?

It’s not like wolves are decimating the state’s white-tail deer population, if that’s a factor in someone’s opinion.

“What drives deer in Michigan is the winter,” Roell said.

However, he acknowledged the wolf population still has fewer than 650 animals. He believes that population will stay between 600 and 700 wolves, depending on the winters and the number of deer available.

Then there’s the question of who should be in charge of wolf management: trained biologists or voters.

“If you had to have your appendix out, would you like to take that to the voters of Michigan, or would you rather take the doctor’s word for it?” Roell asked.

Wolves have been part of an ongoing wolf-moose study on Isle Royale, although the wolf population has been decimated over the years. However, the National Park Service announced it will introduce between 20 and 30 wolves in the island over three to five years. The NPS said this is the historical average number of wolves on Isle Royale and is expected to have an immediate effect on the moose population, which hasn’t been under predator pressure for some time.

Roell said local packs include what he calls the Echo Lake Pack, which has the Triple A Road as its north boundary and travels to the western part of Marquette County, moving to Harlow Lake in the winter to follow deer; the Huron Mountain Club Pack and the Northwest Pack, which he suspects might be the same pack; the Wildcat Pack near the Silver Lake Basin; the Arnold Pack; the Strawberry Lake Pack near the Sands Plains area; the Kates Grade Pack; and the Ford River Pack.

The future for wolves includes a possible federal delisting yet again; Roell said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has started that process.

“There’s no reason for them to be on that list anymore,” Roell said. “What it does is it weakens the importance of that Endangered Species Act.”

He stressed there are species that need to be on that list, but also mentioned species, like the wood duck and bald eagle, that are not on it anymore.

“We should be celebrating, that, hey, this act worked. We have restored a large predator on the landscape that it was gone from,” Roell said. “That’s a very difficult thing to do.”