Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill Wednesday that clears the way to schedule Michigan's first gray wolf hunting season since the resurgent predator, reviled by some as a menace to farm animals and beloved by others as a symbol of untamed wildness, was driven to the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states a half-century ago.
Michigan would become the sixth state to authorize hunting wolves since federal protections were removed over the past two years in the western Great Lakes and the Northern Rockies, where the animals are thriving. Hunters and trappers have killed about 1,100 wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Officials estimate the remaining population at roughly 6,000.
The measure that Snyder approved lets the state Natural Resources Commission decide which types of animals can be hunted — authority that previously rested entirely with the Legislature. The seven-member commission is expected to vote Thursday on a proposal by state wildlife regulators for a season this fall in which up to 43 wolves could be killed — about 7 percent of the 658 believed to roam the remote Upper Peninsula.
"This action helps ensure sound scientific and biological principles guide decisions about management of game in Michigan," Snyder said. "Scientifically managed hunts are essential to successful wildlife management and bolstering abundant, healthy and thriving populations."
The bill undercuts a statewide referendum sought by opponents of wolf hunting. They have gathered more than 250,000 signatures on petitions seeking a vote on a separate measure lawmakers approved in December that designated the wolf as a game species.
If enough signatures are determined to be valid, the issue will be placed on the 2014 election ballot. But the new law makes the referendum a toothless gesture because regardless of the outcome, the commission will have the power to allow wolf hunting.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources last month asked the commission to schedule a two-month hunt this fall. The panel was discussing the matter Wednesday during its monthly meeting in Roscommon and is expected to make a decision Thursday.
An opposition coalition called Keep Michigan Wolves Protected urged commissioners to wait until voters have had their say next year.
"Michigan's 7.4 million registered voters would be discounted if the NRC doesn't respect the will of the people," said Jill Fritz, the group's director. "Legislative chicanery must not allow democratic principles to be circumvented and place Michigan's fragile wolf population at risk."
The law was sponsored by Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican who described marauding wolf packs as a growing nuisance in Michigan's far north, preying on livestock, hunting dogs and household pets. He said his measure carried out the wishes of voters who approved a 1996 ballot initiative giving the commission, whose members are appointed by the governor and serve staggered terms, authority to set hunting policy in Michigan based on scientific data.
The proposed hunt would be held in three zones where natural resources officials say they've received a high number of complaints and other control methods have failed.
Pro-hunting and farm groups contend the opposition is fueled by out-of-state animal rights groups that want to ban all hunting.
"We're happy to see that the DNR will finally have the management tools it needs to help limit wolf conflicts up here and that decisions about how it manages wildlife will be made based on sound science, not television commercials," said Joe Hudson, president of the Upper Peninsula Bear Houndsmen Association.
Opponents acknowledge receiving support from elsewhere but insist their movement is home-grown. They argue that farmers and government officials already have the right to kill problem wolves and say the wolf population's situation remains tenuous, despite its rapid growth in recent decades in the western Great Lakes.
"Hunting would unavoidably break up packs, the vast majority of which are not in conflict with farmers," Garrick Dutcher, program director of a national organization called Living With Wolves, said in a letter urging Snyder to veto the bill. The pack, he said, is "the social unit that defines the wolf and provides the collaboration they rely upon for survival."
Wolves occupied most of the continent before Europeans settlers arrived. Hunting, trapping and poisoning wiped them out in most of the lower 48 states by the mid-20th century.
After the wolf was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1974, a remnant population in Minnesota grew and migrated to the other western Great Lakes states.
Another bill Snyder signed Wednesday guarantees a right to hunt and fish in Michigan.