BY JOHN FLESHER
AP Environmental Writer
TRAVERSE CITY — Michigan moved a step closer to letting hunters target gray wolves Thursday, when the state Senate voted to designate the predator as a game species.
The bill was approved on a 23-15 vote and sent to the House, where a similar measure is pending. It doesn't guarantee that wolf hunts will be allowed but authorizes the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, whose seven members are appointed by the governor, to establish seasons.
Wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in the lower 48 states in the last century but have rebounded in the Upper Midwest and Northern Rockies since receiving protection under federal and state law. About 700 wolves roam Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and a few may have made their way to the northern Lower Peninsula, wildlife biologists say.
The first members of Michigan's resurgent wolf population are believed to have migrated to the Upper Peninsula from Minnesota and Wisconsin, both of which have recreational hunts this fall. Minnesota officials want to reduce their estimated population of 2,900 wolves by 400, while Wisconsin's goal is to kill 116 of its more than 800 wolves.
Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican and chairman of the Natural Resources and Environmental Policy Committee, said wolf numbers are getting out of hand in parts of the Upper Peninsula, where they're drawing complaints from people whose livestock and pets have been killed.
"We've got them casually walking right into the city of Ironwood," Casperson told reporters. "The western U.P. is suffering." Environmental groups and Indian tribes contend more time is needed to make sure the population is secure before hunting is permitted. Upper Great Lakes wolves were dropped from the federal endangered species list in January, with management responsibility shifting to the states.
"They're part of our creation story, and they're also one of those cultural indicators that are inherent in our teachings," said Jimmie Mitchell, natural resources director for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
Nancy Warren, an Upper Peninsula resident and regional director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, said there isn't enough scientific evidence to justify a hunt. Ranchers already have authority to shoot wolves caught in the act of attacking livestock, and the Department of Natural Resources can remove those that habitually get too close to people, she said.
"No wolf has threatened or harmed anyone in Michigan," Warren said. Those that venture into towns are following deer, which often are lured into residential areas by people who unwisely feed them, she said.
If the Legislature approves the bill, opponents may seek a statewide ballot initiative to overturn it, Warren said.
Casperson said letting ranchers take out wolves preying on cattle and other livestock doesn't provide enough help.
The Senate approved an amendment that would create a council through which the tribes and others could advise the Natural Resources Commission. DNR spokesman Ed Golder said the agency already has an advisory panel with representatives of groups interested in wolves.
"That will continue," he said. "We're happy to talk with folks who have concerns."