Great Lakes gray wolves were taken off the endangered species list in 2011, which left states to decide what to do with their growing wolf population. Last night, Michigan Natural Resources Commission members voted 6-1 to join five other states that have allowed wolf hunts. According to local news reports, the NRC will offer up 1,200 hunting licenses, which will be valid until the quota of 43 wolves set by state biologists is met.
"We anticipate that this limited public harvest could both change wolf behavior over time – making them more wary of people, residential areas and farms – and reduce the abundance of wolves in these management areas that have experienced chronic problems," said Russ Mason, wildlife division chief of the Michigan Department, in a release. "We're aiming to decrease the number of conflicts and complaints while maintaining the long-term viability of the wolf population."
The design of the program is a bit worrisome. Allowing up to 1,200 licenses for 43 wolves is a great money-making proposition for the DNR, which hopefully will trickle down to environmental effort. But it also means that, if the program sells out, there will be close to 28 hunters vying for each individual alloted wolf. Considering the lag times inherent in a quota system—kills have to be reported, then logged, then the season closing announcement has to be broadcast—it's very possible that more wolves will be killed than the quota. Of course, I can't predict the future, so that's not gospel. But I do question the decision to offer so many licenses.
Regardless, wolf hunts are a very contentious issue in wolf country, and just like in the cases of collared wolves in Yellowstone being killed, there's a certain vitriol with regards to wolves that isn't present in, say, duck or deer hunters. I know that the comments sections of local news sites are rarely bastions of cogent discussion, but nonetheless, check out the string of comments from UpperMichiganSource.com:
Now, it's not fair to judge a decision like this, or all of Michigan, based on goofball commenters. I'll also say that hunting isn't wrong, nor is allowing a wolf hunt necessarily a bad management decision. Hunting that's backed by solid science and wildlife management can certainly be positive.
Yet no one has a problem with ducks when the go and shoot them. It's a sport, tradition, whatever you want to call it, and hunters generally have a vested interested in making sure those ducks keep coming back year after year. That type of thinking leads to wetlands conservation and population research.
That type of thinking could absolutely apply to wolves as well, but it doesn't. With all of the US wolf hunts approved so far, there's been an undercurrent—sometimes small, sometimes large—of people who basically feel that we should kill as many wolves as we can, and fuck the scientists (or government, or Illuminati, or whatever) that say that's not a good idea.
Wolves are apex predators that have huge impacts on their habitat, and their return has brought plenty of environmental good, along with the depredation that ranchers are justly concerned about. But that nuanced picture too often gets lost in the discussion, and it's frustrating when popular sentiment, as it always does, affects management decisions. In any case, the Michigan wolf population will surely decline like the Rocky Mountain population did, and we'll have to wait to see if that loss is sustainable or not.