Republicans are experiencing the Little Red Riding Hood effect and Michigan’s grey wolves are paying the price.

VULCAN, Mich.—In the forests of Northern Michigan, around six wolves roam in search of small woodland animals. Success in their search will benefit their small pack, and if food remains abundant, their numbers might grow to eight or even a dozen. A harsh winter, though, could decimate the pack. With so few members, a risk is always present that a bad season could result in the pack needing to disband.  

The grey wolf population in Michigan’s upper peninsula has been slowly increasing thanks to wildlife protections granted to them as an endangered species, but Michigan Republicans want to end that trend. 

Today, there are almost 700 wolves in the northernmost reaches of Michigan, up from 200 in 2004. That success again puts them in literal crosshairs, however. 

In the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency, he enacted a series of regulatory changes that included declassifying grey wolves as endangered. Michigan Republicans have seized on that and have been clamoring for the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to authorize a grey wolf hunting season in 2021 to cull that 700 down again.

Republicans in the Michigan Legislature  introduced a bill that calls for the DNR to issue licenses to allow hunting of grey wolves. Across Lake Michigan, Wisconsin is already authorizing the hunting of the animal. In the first three days of grey wolf hunting in the state, Wisconsinites killed 200 wolves, 20% of Wisconsin’s wolf population.

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Nancy Warren, regional director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, described this phenomenon as the Little Red Riding Hood effect—that fear of wolves taught culturally through childhood guides people’s attitude toward the animals despite not having a basis in actual wolf behaviors. 

Warren says wolves routinely cross her property in Ontonagon County, but they are nothing to worry about.

“When you see them in the wild, they will put their head down and stare a little,” Warren told Michigan Radio. “They are trying to assess who you are. Some people perceive that as a threat.”

But wolves are extremely stealthy and largely uninterested in interacting with humans, she explained. If you see one, Warren said that’s because it didn’t smell you first and run away. In the exceedingly rare instances of problem wolves disrupting livestock, Michiganders already have authority to take action.

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Image via Shutterstock
A wolf mother and her cub.

And those instances are very rare. 

“With a steady population, we don’t need a hunt to reduce the wolf population, so you look at maybe conflicts,” she explained. “Livestock losses have been extremely low, we’re talking single digits [annually]. Producers are compensated for their loss, if they lose it to a wolf.” 

As opposed to Wisconsin’s approach, however, Michigan’s DNR is moving slowly and thoughtfully. In a continuation of the new trend of consulting Indigenous Michiganders on conservation issues, the DNR is seeking input from communities that see the grey wolf as sacred. 

MLive reports the DNR also is reviving its wolf advisory council made up of hunting, fishing, agriculture, Indigenous communities, and conservation groups and plans to seek public opinion on the hunting of grey wolves. 

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Ultimately, 700 grey wolves occupying a peninsula with 16,000 square miles of land still represents a remarkably small number. Given that the wolf population is able to drop sharply year-to-year if food becomes scarce, the reserved approach of the DNR makes more sense than a rush to authorize hunting seen in Wisconsin and in Michigan’s Legislature. The risk posed by wolves is small and already mitigated by existing policies, and a pack of four to eight wolves, the common size of a pack in Michigan, is miniscule compared to packs in other regions like Alaska, which can easily see packs of 20 or more. 

The motivation to hunt the grey wolves of Michigan may be based more on  people’s visceral childhood fear of what big teeth Grandmother has and less by actual ecological conservation or livestock safety.