She was a slim, young and adventurous wolf. Sometime in 2003 she set out on a southerly jaunt from her birthplace in Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula, crossed the ice of the Straits of Mackinac and ambled into Presque Isle County.
The 30-month-old wolf’s bid to extend her range made perfect sense, pointed out Brian Mastenbrook, a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), while on a bumpy ride over icy dirt roads last March looking for wolf tracks. Since 1989, when Michigan documented the first active pack in the most westerly portion of the Upper Peninsula, the state’s wolf population has steadily increased and now numbers 438 animals. “She was out checking new territory,” Mastenbrook said. “She might have felt like it was getting too crowded, or there was too much competition where she was.”
Unfortunately, the wandering female met an untimely death in October 2004 in a coyote trap near a farm in Millersburg. But other recent signs of wild wolves suggest that, for the first time since at least 1910 (when they were exterminated in large part because of a state bounty), wolves are living in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. This fortuitous new chapter in the story of the gray wolf’s recovery in the Great Lakes region owes much to the tenacity and intelligence of the animals, and to the protections of the federal Endangered Species Act. But it also brings with it new challenges for government officials and conservation groups.
In the mid 1990′s, when we surveyed people in the Upper Peninsula, there was strong support for wolves, for increasing their numbers,” said Mastenbrook, scanning the snowy roadside for evidence of a wolf’s track. “But as the numbers have increased, our surveys show that support for wolves has gone down. Our challenge is to come up with a way to manage wolves that is responsible to them and ends this erosion in public support.”
In the annals of Michigan’s long history of give and take with its wild kingdom, the narrative is heavy on the take side. The ninth law that Michigan passed after statehood in 1837 was a wolf bounty. It took until 1965 for the state to afford the continent’s largest wild canid legal protection. By that time, wolves had been eradicated in every corner of Michigan except Isle Royale in Lake Superior, where a healthy pack that crossed the ice from Canada feasted on moose and small game.
The change in state law and the advent of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973, which defined the gray wolf as endangered across its former range in the lower 48 states and made it a crime to kill the animal, set the stage for the gray wolf’s return. A remnant population in northern Minnesota grew and wolves began to spread south and east through Wisconsin and, in the late 9980s, into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a long tongue of land extending east from northern Wisconsin.
Since then, due in part to the animal’s ability to thrive not only in the fiercest wilderness, but also in fast-developing rural counties, the number of wolves has steadily grown in the Upper Peninsula. There are now nearly 80 packs roaming a territory the size of New Hampshire, and the number of adults is growing 13 percent annually. So it comes as no surprise that a few are quietly nosing around the Lower Peninsula for partners, territory and food.
The first proof of the southern incursion was the body of the radio-collared female in the coyote trap. Then, in November 2004, just a month later, DNR conservation officers responded to a homeowner’s report of a wolf sighting in the same area of Presque Isle County. They found sets of four-inch-wide tracks–much larger than a dog’s or a coyote’s–and confirmed that they belonged to a separate pair of wolves.
And Late last May in Montmorency County, state biologists crossed a muddy trail and discovered the unmistakable, straight-line tracks of at least two wolves. Next door to Montmorency is Otsego County, where the DNR undertook part of its wolf survey last winter. Otsego straddles Interstate 75, which ties Detroit to the Upper Peninsula and Canada and, with a growth rate of 30 percent in the 1990s, is one of the fastest-developing rural counties in the Midwest.
Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota today have a total of about 3900 wolves–more than a three-fold increase in the past two decades. Only Alaska, with 6000 to 8000 wolves, has more than the northern reaches of the Great Lakes.
The spread of wolves has resulted in more encounters with farm and domestic animals. In 2002, Wisconsin officials verified livestock killed by wolves on eight farms. That number climbed to 14 farms in 2003 and 22 farms in 2004. In response, the state trapped and euthanized 17 wolves in 2003 and 24 wolves in 2004 after concluding they had killed livestock. In 2003 and 2004, Michigan officials confirmed wolves in the Upper Peninsula killed 13 dogs, 18 head of cattle, 13 chickens and 5 sheep. Since the 1990s, the state has paid $17,366 to farmers to compensate for livestock losses. Those are not huge numbers by an means, but they have created some resentment among farmers and fueled fears among the uninformed.
Last December researchers published the results of a five-year study that showed people in Michigan accept the presence of wolves, but still view them as a threat. Though 90 percent of the people surveyed said wolves should be allowed to live in all parts of Michigan, more than two-thirds also noted that they would be afraid for their children if they knew wolves lived near their homes. “People really do have a deep-seated irrational fear of wolves,” said Kevin Schanning, a sociology professor at Northland College in Wisconsin who led the study. “This persists despite no evidence of wolves attacking humans in Michigan. Statistically, you are in more danger from domestic dogs and bees.”
The Bush administration has been anxious to let wolves fend for themselves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003 proposed to end protections under the Endangered Species Act for gray wolves (“de-list” the species) in the lower 48 states. The service argued that wolves were doing so well they didn’t need additional federal protection, and that management duties could fall to the states. Defenders of Wildlife, along with 8 other conservation groups, mounted a legal challenge to the action, stating that the science underlying the proposal was insufficient, and the rationale for de-listing wolves in the manner suggested by the federal wildlife agency violated the law. On January 31, 2005, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones agreed and struck down the Bush administration’s proposal. The federal wildlife agency has abandoned the plan for the time being.
Nevertheless, the social and political energy that motivated the Bush administration to try to weaken protections persists across the politically conservative counties where most wolves live in the United States. Passions tilting against wolves run high in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Brian Roell, a young biologist who was raised on an Upper Peninsula cattle farm and is Michigan’s wolf coordinator, is leading the state’s inclusive, multi-year program to develop a new management plan in the event that the federal government de-lists the wolves. “The land can support a lot of wolves,” he says. “They are turning out to be much more adaptable than we ever thought. But will Michigan accept a lot of wolves? It’s difficult when you are dealing with a large predator. You know, no one is afraid of being overrun by chickadees.”
Earlier this year, to gather public input for the state’s plan, Roell and his team conducted 10 public hearings–six in the Upper Peninsula; four more in the Lower. Some 500 people attended and their comments differed markedly across the regions. In Ann Arbor, in southern Michigan, citizens urged the state to continue to protect the wolf at all costs and increase their numbers. In the Upper Peninsula, citizens expressed deep concerns about the loss of farm animals and hunting dogs, sported anti-wolf pins and bumper stickers, said they were afraid for themselves and their children, and called on the state to open a limited wolf hunting season.
Neither Roell nor any of his colleagues will predict whether a limited hunt will occur in Michigan if federal protections are removed for gray wolves. Any such plan would require state legislative approval. But the evenhanded way that the sate agency has managed wolf conservation to date suggests that the state’s new wolf management plan, expected to be completed in 2007, will include several elements to ensure the long-term survival of the species, including research and monitoring of wolf populations and public education programs.
When talking about the challenges of finding a way to keep wolf numbers growing in Michigan and diminish public fears, Mastenbrook’s eyebrows rise and the corners of his mouth harden. “What we are going to try to do is manage wolf numbers and their range along with people’s tolerance for wolves,” he says. “We’ll increase people’s positive interactions with wolves and decrease their negative interactions.
“That’s a tall order with any species,” he added. “With the wolf, which seems to bring out strong feelings with everyone, it’s especially difficult.”
By Keith Schneider
Defenders of Wildlife Magazine Fall 2005 Edition