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Upper Peninsula hunters want more control over natural resource policy

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State Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock) is sponsoring bills that would establish a separate Natural Resource Commission for Michigan's Upper Peninsula. (Photo: NOAA Great Lakes CoastWatch node.)

For the past century, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission has helped the state set hunting and fishing limits. The seven-member board meets once a month, at different locations throughout Michigan.

At each of those meetings, the commission gathers public input and uses it – along with the best available science – to make decisions. But in a state as vast and geographically diverse as Michigan, it’s hard to please everyone.

“The time has come for the U.P. to be represented by U.P. people,” said state Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock).

Markkanen represents Michigan’s northernmost district in the Upper Peninsula, including Keweenaw County. He’s co-sponsoring a bill that – if passed – would establish a separate natural resources commission. That commission would regulate hunting and fishing in just the U.P.

Markkanen says it’s a popular idea among his constituents, some of whom travel great distances to attend NRC meetings.

“I drive a thousand miles back and forth to Lansing,” said Markkanen. “It takes me five hours just to get to the bridge.”

Most years, the NRC only meets in the Upper Peninsula once. And while the Upper Peninsula only has 3 percent of the people in the state, it makes up almost 30 percent of Michigan’s land mass.

“We want to continue the hunting tradition,” said Markkanen. “And right now that tradition is slowly fading away because of the wolf situation.”

The “wolf situation” refers to concerns that there are too many wolves in the U.P., and a declining deer herd — something Markkanen said the NRC is not sufficiently addressing.

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Michigan DNR
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The Upper Peninsula's declining deer population is a major concern among local hunters. (Photo: Michigan Department of Natural Resources.)

Tom Baird is chair of the NRC. He said there’s no conclusive evidence that wolves really are to blame for the U.P.’s shrinking deer population.

“The two factors that seem to be weighing very heavily are weather and habitat,” said Baird. He said extreme cold and a lack of food in the forests are believed to be the main causes of deer mortality in the winter and spring months.

“So, are wolves the primary cause of a reduced deer herd in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? I don’t think so; that’s not what the scientists are telling us,” said Baird.

But some of Rep. Markkanen’s constituents strongly disagree.

Gary Gorniak is vice president of the U.P. Sportsmen's Alliance, which has about 40,000 members throughout the Upper Peninsula. He says deer in the U.P. migrate to places where there’s cover and food in the winter.

“Basically, they used to just lay there, chew their cud and wait for spring to come. But now what's happening is that the wolves are getting into these deer yarding areas and they're running these deer to death,” Gorniak said, “which means they're expelling a lot of energy that they should be saving to survive the winter. But the wolves are dropping down their stamina.”

Gorniak and many other hunters from the U.P. have shared these concerns at NRC meetings.

“We just want to be taken seriously, and we’re not. We’re simply not,” said Gorniak. “Nothing we’ve asked for – the yooper people – is even considered to be into the plan,” said Gorniak, referencing the state’s new Wolf Management Plan.

At its last meeting, the NRC reviewed that plan. And the DNR is expected to give it the final sign-off at December's meeting. Right now, a wolf hunt can’t legally take place because gray wolves are on the federal endangered species list. But if that changes, there’s nothing in place to regulate a wolf hunt in the Upper Peninsula.

“We don’t want to wipe out the wolves,” said Gornaik. “We want to do things legally, we want our game managed responsibly. And that’s all we’re asking.”

So why not have a separate commission for the U-P? According to Tom Baird, chair of the NRC, a separate commission would go against the whole concept of state ownership and public land.

“Michigan's natural resources, including its forests and its fish and wildlife, are held in trust by the state on behalf of the people of the state,” said Baird. “Not the Upper Peninsula, not the Lower Peninsula, but the entire state. So a person in the lower peninsula may have an interest in wolves; a person in the Upper Peninsula might have an interest in state parks around the Detroit metro area.”

The bills currently in the Michigan House of Representatives say a U.P. commission could regulate game species that have “no significant impact outside of the Upper Peninsula.”

Baird said that sounds to him like a dangerous precedent.

“Deer hunting, bear hunting, bobcat hunting in the Upper Peninsula: you could argue none of them have an impact on the lower peninsula because of our geographic separation,” Baird said. “So really, I think that’s parsing some words without thinking that slippery slope through.”

Gary Gorniak with the U.P. Sportsmen’s Alliance said he’s aware the bills have a slim chance of making it through the House, the Senate and the governor’s desk. But he said this effort will send a message to the Natural Resources Commission.

“They're supposed to be the bridge between the DNR and the sportsmen, and that's not happening right now,” Gorniak said. “And that is probably the biggest reason. We want our own nrc. We want somebody to listen to us. That's all.”

Rep. Markkanen’s bill package is currently before the House Committee on Natural Resources. From there it could get a hearing on the house floor, and Markannen said he hopes it reaches the senate before the lame duck session ends in January.

Patrick Shea is a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.