Fierce Emotion Over A Top Predator

Jul 15, 2011

No other wildlife species, it seems, causes such extremes of emotion as the wolf. Some people want to protect it at any cost. Others want to shoot the animal on sight.

Protected for Now
At the moment wolves are listed as an endangered species. But they may soon be removed from federal protection. The it will be up to the state to decide how to come to terms with a top predator.

Gray wolves returned to the Upper Peninsula more than twenty years ago. That was not cause for alarm, at first, says Larry Livermore.  He manages the 35,000 acre Hiawatha Sportsman's Club, about an hour's drive west of the Mackinaw Bridge.

"People would see one and they'd tell everybody. They'd come into my office and we'd write down where," Livermore recalls.  "And it was all, oh that's so cool, you know. There was no hatred of wolves."

But things have changed. More and more sportsmen are now convinced wolves are decimating the white tail deer herd. Last fall only fifteen bucks were taken from the 52 square miles of Hiawatha Club property. A typical number is more like forty. And some long time owners are giving up their memberships and selling their places because the deer hunting has become pathetic.

 "You have a whole bunch of honest law abiding citizens who have finally had enough and say, you don't care about us, you don't understand our dilemma here and so we will take it into our own hands," Livermore says.  "And that's happening here. People who I never dreamed would say I would shoot a wolf are telling me that they will shoot one."

Illegal Kills
And, in fact, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula illegal wolf kills are spiking.

State Department of Natural Resources officials counted fifteen last year, up from seven the year before. That's out of population pushing close to 700.

Brian Roell is not alarmed about it. He's the go-to wolf guy for the DNR in Marquette. He says if people were shooting as many wolves as they claim to be it would be reducing overall numbers and that's not happening.

He expects the animal to come off the endangered species list later this year. And Roell says once federal protection is gone people will feel like they can take some control back.

 "It's going to take away that moniker of "sacred cow" for lack of better terms because a lot of folks feel like they have no rights that these wolves have all the rights and protections."

Roell says wolves have a minor impact on the deer herd. But they do cause problems for farmers by killing livestock.

And in a few cases wolves have gotten too close to people for comfort like a few did last year in the town of Ironwood. Wildlife officials captured and killed those animals.

 "When you have wolves chasing dogs up on the porches, rooting through the garbage, standing in yards, laying in mowed portions of the lawn with young kids going to school," Roell explains, "we didn't have any aggressive behaviors but we sure weren't going to wait for that to happen to decide that something needed to be done."

The Plan
DNR has a management plan ready to go once the wolf is removed from the endangered species list.

But the plan doesn't include a hunting season. It does allow permits to kill wolves where they're putting a lot of pressure on deer.

At a meeting in Marquette some sportsmen's groups told DNR officials there are too many wolves and they want a hunting season. Sportsmen say if wolves are treated more like bears with limited harvests then the animals will have some value.

But Nancy Warren says wolves have their own value on the landscape. She thinks people need to learn more about the animals and adjust their behavior.

She points out that in Ironwood residents were feeding deer in their backyards and that also drew the wolves to town.

Warren believes the number of deer killed is being exaggerated. And she says there's no need for a hunting season to knock down wolf numbers.  "Science shows, research shows that as we get more wolves in a tighter area and territories become smaller they control their own population."

Bad Old Days
Warren fears a return to the bad old days when wolves were considered varmints and those who hate them were free to put out poison bait or to shoot them on sight.

Larry Livermore at the Hiawatha Club says those days already are here. He points out that a dead wolf was flung into the intersection near Engadine as a message that people are fed up.

That's near where more than a hundred people turn out to raise money for a man charged with illegally killing two wolves. He faces a stiff fine and a few months in jail and needs help with legal fees. There's cold beer, hot dogs and hamburgs on the grill and an auction of donated items.

John Troyer is a local contractor and taxidermist who helped to organize the event. He says the wolf situation is out of control and it's turning ordinary citizens into outlaws.

Troyer says there's already frustration over a declining economy in the U.P.  And now he thinks a long-standing tradition that puts meat in the freezer is threatened by a predator that once was exterminated.

"There's a reason they had a bounty on these, however many years ago it was, because there really is no place for the wolves in the U.P.," Troyer says. "The deer have a hard enough time getting through winters, most winters."

But Brian Roell with the DNR doesn't see wholesale slaughter of wolves as a real threat. Because once the animal comes off the endangered species list, he says, no one is going to want to risk having to put it back on again.