The worldwide advance of anti-wolf forces was temporarily slowed on March 27, when a coalition of animal welfare organizations, environmental groups, and Native American tribes delivered to the Michigan Secretary of State a petition calling for a referendum on the state’s new wolf hunting law. Even as Michiganders took that first step in what promises to be a long and costly campaign to protect their wolves from human predation, anti-wolf forces pressed a counterattack on several fronts, proving that neither science nor democratic principles would stand in the way of their hatred and fear.
All of this political maneuvering was carried out against the backdrop of reports that the state’s most famous wolves—those on Isle Royale in Lake Superior—are teetering on the edge of extinction. Perhaps the most studied population of wild wolves in the world, the Isle Royale wolves have over the past half-century played a crucial role in changing public perception of wolves from that of wanton, marauding killers—hunting, in fact, is hard and dangerous—to predators who are essential to healthy ecosystems. Now with their genomes showing levels of inbreeding to match the most pure of purebred dogs, the wolves of Isle Royale offer a bleak testament to what can happen when a wide-ranging species is shattered by human hunting and habitat fragmentation into small, isolated populations of the damned.
Hastily passed by the Republican-controlled legislature the end of last year and signed into law by the Republican governor, the Michigan bill removed the gray wolf from the state’s list of endangered species and reclassified it a game animal suitable for hunting. The reclassification authorized the state Natural Resources Commission to set dates, quotas, and rules for human predation on the estimated 600 to 700 wolves, most of them in the state’s Upper Peninsula. (I have rounded the number off in honor of my accountant who says he cannot understand why precise figures are given for estimates in news stories. I say they are used because they sound more authentic than the generalized number, but I take his point and so wiil say, “an estimated 600 to 700,” rather than “an estimated 658.") The wolf reclassification bill passed despite several polls showing that Michiganders opposed wolf hunting by significant margins.
In response Michigan groups that support wolves, along with the Humane Society of the United States, formed Keep Michigan Wolves Protected to place repeal of the wolf-hunting bill on the statewide ballot in 2014. Due to delays at the state level in approving wording for the ballot question, and thus for the petition, organizers had only 67 out of 90 days in which to collect 161,000 signatures of registered Michigan voters. They obtained 253,705 signatures. If the Secretary of State certifies that the petition is valid, the question will be placed on next year’s statewide ballot, and the law will be held in abeyance until the votes are counted.
It is encouraging to see pro-wolf forces turn to the ballot box because their wishes are often ignored by state government agencies and state legislatures that continue to serve the needs of predominately rural white constituents. But the demographic shifts that are transforming the rest of the country have not exempted the Upper Midwestern and Northern Rocky Mountain states; indeed, in some of their cities, like Detroit, multi-ethnic disunity, exposed as the path to destruction, is being replaced in fits and starts by a new sense of place and recognition that if they don’t work together the people of Detroit or Milwaukee or any number of other cities and their suburbs will suffer alone. Even outside those cities, populations are becoming more urban, less white and less likely to want their state’s wildlife managed like targets in a private shooting gallery.
That is an optimistic view of a where a demographic trend might lead. For now, the response of anti-wolf groups has been to accuse petition gatherers of being in thrall to an outside group—the Humane Society of the United States—and to seek to thwart the democratic process by introducing legislation blocking a referendum on wolf hunting and giving the appointed natural resources commission authority to declare species game animals in Michigan. Decisions of regulatory boards are not subject to referendums. New legislation would also attach appropriations to a rewritten wolf-killing bill, which under Michigan law would make it ineligible for repeal by referendum. These undemocratic measures are being promoted by groups who routinely and roundly condemn government regulations. I can only assume that their supporters know they cannot win a statewide referendum
For its part, the Natural Resources Commission has announced plans to permit hunters to kill 47 wolves next fall in three areas of the Upper Peninsula in order to reduce conflicts between humans and wolves, who are said to be killing dogs and livestock. The expectation is that if they are hunted, wolves will learn to avoid humans. The argument flies in the face of a growing body of research indicating that wolf packs fragmented by hunting lose their social and cultural cohesion and become more likely to turn to domesticated animals for sustenance. All of that aside, Michiganders, like people almost everywhere, already have the right to take out anything that attacks their livestock and dogs.
Michiganders have repeatedly expressed the desire to have wolf management decisions based on sound science. For now, they are getting a wolf-killing policy dictated by cynical power politics, not by democratic vote and certainly not by science.