The gray wolf culling in Wisconsin was less a hunt and more of a “killing spree,” according to a Fish and Wildlife Services expert. Would Michigan’s hunt go the same way?
VULCAN, Mich.—At Michigan’s northernmost national park, baby wolf pups are being celebrated in 2021. The newborn wolves, with fewer than a dozen adults on Isle Royale to train them, represent progress back toward the normal balance of nature.
The wolves, when grown, will eat some of Isle Royale’s moose. The moose, without wolves to control their population, have reached such numbers that competition over food has left some to starve, and left plantlife struggling to make it through the winter intact. The National Parks Service hopes that a rebound in wolves—one heralded by the cries of the new pups—will restore the island to a more sustainable ecosystem.
Michigan’s total population of gray wolves is about 700 strong right now, but a looming political battle could dramatically shrink that number.
Since 1978, these small but important wolf packs have been protected and extensively studied in Michigan. That changed in 2020, and the future of the local wolf population now faces a grim battle.
Politicians v. The People: What’s Behind the Push to Kill Wolves
The wolves, which live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, travel in packs of six looking for woodland animals to eat. If they’re particularly successful, the pack might grow to eight, or even a dozen. If they’re not, the pack will be forced to disband.
They’re still very rare in the Upper Peninsula, with about one small pack per 140 square miles of land. Though the population is far higher than just 200 wolves in 2004, still the animals struggle to really thrive.
Wolves play an important role in Upper Michigan’s ecosystem, as exemplified by their presence on Isle Royale. With too few wolves, the population of their natural prey grew. Over time, Isle Royale’s moose population was so high, the struggle over food left the island’s trees devastated and the remains of starved moose littered the national park. Restoring the wolf population has been a major focus of the National Parks Service to bring the island’s natural ecosystem back into balance.
But despite local conservationists’ concern over protecting the important wolf population, there’s a concerted effort to reintroduce wolf hunting on the peninsula, led by Republicans.
It started soon after then-President Donald Trump took wolves off of the endangered species list, against a multitude of experts: including 86 members of Congress (in both the House and Senate), 100 scientists, 230 businesses, and 367 veterinary professionals warned about the still-vulnerable species.
Six wildlife and ecological groups sued the Trump administration almost immediately.
In Michigan, State Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) is currently pushing for local wolves to be hunted. He also doesn’t think researchers or experts from outside the Upper Peninsula should get to influence the decision about the UP’s wolf population. McBroom instead proposed letting the 3% of Michiganders in the upper part of the state determine the wolves’ fate alone.
Poaching and Population Overkill: When Hunting Wolves Goes Wrong
There’s a lot of information out there that really puts Michigan’s pending wolf hunting decision into perspective, including how it’s handled in other states, and why.
First, comparing Michigan pack size to those in other states like Alaska, where wolf hunting is legal and the gray wolf population was always abundant, show a dramatic difference: Alaska wolf packs, for instance, run about 20 members strong, which is far larger than the average Michigan pack, where six wolves may roam together.
This year Wisconsin voted to allow wolf hunting, a decision that local experts immediately said devastated the waning species.
That’s because in just three days, Wisconsin’s wolf hunt killed nearly a third of the state’s gray wolf population—shattering the state’s allowed quota of wolves hunted. In fact, opening the hunt allowed nearly twice as many wolves to be wiped out as legalized.
That’s because of poaching and population overkill, an unintended but very real consequence to consider when it comes to hunting certain animals.
Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials say this dramatic result happened despite close monitoring of the hunt, and Wisconsin’s indigenous Ojibwe community choosing conservation over hunting when it came to the wolves on their land.
“We were monitoring that harvest constantly and had everybody working hard to stay on top of what was going on,” Wildlife Management Director for Wisconsin’s DNR Eric Lobner told our sister publication UpNorthNews.
The result was in fact a human-made disaster among wolf populations, according to Adrian Treves, an environmental studies professor at the University of Wisconsin.
“The history of political scapegoating of wolves may repeat itself,” Treves and two colleagues said in a paper published by the journal PeerJ. “We recommend federal governments reconsider the practice of sudden deregulation of wolf management and instead recommend they consider protecting [wolves].”
The political legacy he and other environmental experts have drawn attention to culminated with Trump’s unpopular delisting of gray wolves across the country. It was a decision that ignited concerns about reducing wolf populations in many states. In others, like Wisconsin, it was embraced, but to the detriment of the environment.
Treves’ team wrote that removing federal protections over once-endangered species “opens the door for antagonists to kill large numbers in short periods, legally and illegally.”
Wisconsin’s culling was actually a “killing spree” that violated hunting ethics, according to Ed Bangs, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator. Had things been more controlled, he explained, Wisconsin might’ve been able to demonstrate its argument that a narrower culling could be beneficial.
But Bangs’ assessment raises a question: Why did wolf culling become a “killing spree” and not a traditional, ethical hunt? And would Michiganders have this problem, too?
The issue doesn’t necessarily come from hunters, but from folk tales and traditions.
From Fairy Tale to Fear: The ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ Effect
Yooper Nancy Warren says society has a massive misconception about how our wolves actually behave.
As the regional director for the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, this Michigan resident and environmental advocate is speaking out against the Republican state Sen McBroom, who she feels is rushing a wolf hunt right from her own backyard of Vulcan.
“When you see them in the wild, they will put their head down and stare a little,” Warren told The ‘Gander when explaining what she calls the “Little Red Riding Hood effect.”
“They are trying to assess who you are. Some people perceive that as a threat,” she added.
But, because wolves have so long been portrayed in culture as vicious enemies of humanity, people are conditioned to fear and hate them out of superstition, she explained.
Actual wolf behavior—the kind she sees firsthand on her land—is far different from what we’re taught.
For instance, a shocking amount of what people believe about wolf behavior is outright untrue: Just like the myth of the alpha wolf, which was debunked years ago by global wildlife researchers like Barbara Zimmermann.
Those seemingly small myths and misconceptions have had a measurable impact.
Michigan’s DNR caught the most prolific wolf poacher Michigan has had in modern times, just last summer.
The poacher, Kurt Duncan of Pickford, was found with 52 unlawfully snared animals: 18 wolves (the most ever seized by Michigan’s wildlife officials), 19 coyotes, eight foxes, three bald eagles, two white-tailed deer, one bobcat and one turkey.
DNR investigators said he used devices that weren’t designed to limit animal suffering, and then used the animal remains to make a profit by selling illegally-made jewelry and decor.
Confessing he “likes to do it,” Duncan pleaded guilty to seven of the wildlife law violations against him and lost his hunting and trapping license for life, in addition to serving a 90-day jail sentence.
In the nearby town of Rudyard, Michigan land owner Eric Wallis battles wildlife investigators who have repeatedly determined that wolves were not responsible for the death of his animals.
Still, he insists the rare animals are to blame: “I just want permission to deal with a problem,” he told Bridge.
That, too, is something Warren attributes to the Little Red Riding Hood effect.
“Producers are compensated for their loss, if they lose it to a wolf,” Warren explained. “Livestock losses have been extremely low, we’re talking single digits [annually].”
But it’s Duncan’s eagerness and Wallis’ misconceptions that wildlife experts and advocates worry could turn a hunt into a “killing spree” like Wisconites saw.
From her home in Vulcan, when she looks out the window and sees wolves, Warren is certain it’s unnecessary.
Rather, it could be a disaster that sets the wolf population back twenty years. That’s not something Michigan needs, she said.
“With a steady population, we don’t need a hunt to reduce the wolf population.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.