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The Hunted: DNR declares first state wolf hunt successful, future of hunts remains unclear

Michigan’s first state-sponsored wolf hunt in more than 50 years ended in victory for hunters, but not without controversy.

Members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe protested the hunt in the months before it was set to begin. At a candle-lit vigil held outside the Saginaw Chippewa Academy in November, Nathan Isaac, a cultural teacher at the academy, called for his community to protest and prevent future hunts.

'The community really pulls together when we need it," he said. "Tonight, we are standing here for the wolf. It plays a very important part of our story.”

The one-month season, which saw wolves killed throughout three different zones in the Upper Peninsula from Nov. 16 through Dec. 31, was deemed a success by Brian Roell, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, despite lower numbers than were initially projected.

“We didn’t meet our quota or what we were hoping to get, but I don’t view that as a failure,” Roell said.

By the hunt’s conclusion, 23 wolves were killed, slightly more than half of the maximum state-sanctioned allotment of 43.

The DNR said there is a minimum approximate population of 658 wolves in the state. This is an increase from years past, where, as recently as 1989, there were only three recorded wolves.

“It’s a success story because wolves are in a state where they can withstand a harvest and I think that’s a success in itself,” Roell said. “Just that we’re at a point with a viable population."

Roell said the main purpose of the hunt was to decrease aggressive behavior in wolves, including killing livestock and pets.

“What we were trying to achieve was a change in behavior," he said, "and to lower the population in areas where we have had conflicts."

Although the lasting effects of the hunt haven't been determined, Roell said new methodology of sanctioning and tracking kills was developed and will continue to help population control in the future.

“Now we’re at the point where hunters will pay the government for the opportunity to harvest a wolf,” Roell said. “It shows we can control how many animals are taken.”

The argument against

Nevertheless, since well before the hunt was announced, a number of organizations vocally announced their displeasure with the notion of hunting what was considered an endangered species decades ago.

Jill Fritz, director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, said regardless of whether the DNR accomplishes its goal of reducing aggressive wolf behavior, the hunt shouldn't have transpired.

“The hunt should have never happened in the first place; that’s the bottom line," she said. "It never should have happened."

In March 2013, a petition collected more than 250,000 signatures to halt the season until voters could decide whether to approve the hunt in a 2014 referendum. However, the effort to cease the hunt hit a huge legislative snag.

“The legislature knew that citizens are not supportive of a wolf hunt and would not support the bill,” Fritz said.

In May, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Senate Bill 288 to allow the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, a seven-member governor-appointed body, to designate game species and hunting seasons.

Fritz said the bill was a usurpation of Michigan citizens’ right to vote. She said because of the bill, the NRC is able to make such designations without any democratic oversight.

Keep Michigan Wolves Protected is operating a second petition drive that would result in a referendum of the latest law.

“What has happened with this campaign is an egregious attack on your democratic rights as a voter in the state of Michigan,” Fritz said. “Essentially, the legislature has taken away citizens’ rights to vote on wildlife issues.”

During the wolf vigil, Isaac explained the wolf holds strong spiritual and historical significance for the tribe. He spoke about the historical significance of the creatures and the cultural relationship Native Americans have toward them.

“What happens to the wolf, happens to us,” Isaac said. “Our people were once hunted, too. Wolf hunting is not OK with our people. I will not hunt my brother.”

The future of wolf hunting in Michigan remains vague.

The DNR and NRC intend on examining the effects of the hunt and will determine if there will be a hunt at the end of 2014 as well.

Should both of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected’s initiated referendums pass, Fritz said there would likely be no hunt.

“If we are able to get our second referendum on the ballot, I am confident that Michigan voters will vote both of them down and wolves will not be hunted,” she said.