Some months ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) once again announced their intent to delist gray wolves as a federally endangered species and transfer management authority for wolves to the states, in compliance with the intent and letter of the Endangered Species Act. Since then, however, the familiar partisans, President Biden, and his cabinet hopefuls are preparing for battle. 

On one side are the protectionists who claim the wolf population has not recovered, who want wolves to continue to enjoy Endangered Species Act protections, and have fears of what state governance could mean. Wolves have proven to be an effective cash cow for protectionist groups and anti-hunters who appeal to the emotions of their base and who may be otherwise ambivalent to wildlife issues. 

The opposing side is often dominated by people who hate wolves for reasons that are based in folklore fiction, who predict that wolves will spell the doom of Michigan’s beloved deer herd, represent a public safety threat, and that the presence of wolves may dictate more restrictive public land use. These arguments too are largely half-truths and do not stand up to scrutiny.

With my professional and personal background, you may not be surprised to hear that I believe wolves should be delisted and their management should be entrusted to the state in which they live. But before you close your mind to my thoughts, consider this:

For decades, wolves in Michigan have been at or above the population numbers that will ensure sustainability. They have met and exceeded the criteria for being considered an endangered species in both the Michigan Wolf Management Plan and the Federal Wolf Recovery Plan, and now number over 700 animals in Michigan.

Michigan residents have made it clear that they believe our wildlife resources should be managed sustainably for the benefit of current and future generations of Michiganders. We are among just a handful of states that have forested habitat remaining that is capable of sustaining wolves. This is a fact worthy of celebration and pride.

People recognize a wide range of values in having wolves present. The range includes naturalistic, existential, utilitarian, spiritual, and conservation values. The goal of having a sustainable wolf population provides for all these values, and should be the expected goal for governance of the wolf resource.

Some people have claimed that state management of this resource would preferentially consider utilitarian groups such as hunters and trappers. These same people claim that hunters and trappers are only interested in reducing or eliminating wolves in order to either maximize other game such as deer, or they are driven by profit that could come from selling wolf pelts. In 60 years of dealing with these groups, I find this to be untrue. Most hunters want to have wolves present, and the same applies to trappers. However, both of these groups, amounting to nearly one million Michigan residents, would like to see the best wildlife science applied to wolf management, which necessarily includes some population control. 

There is a public cost to having wildlife populations which are not managed effectively, often necessitating population control. Consider the public cost of Michigan’s high deer numbers in terms of car/deer collisions. Since 1994, when wolves met delisting criteria, 101 dogs have been killed by wolves, with 41 more injured, and livestock depredations have been significant to the farm community. Marginal financial compensation has been available for livestock losses. No financial compensation has been available for the loss of pets.

Wolves have been “protected” by the Endangered Species Act since 1975. That protection has offered little or no actual management under authority of USFWS. Rather, it has provided only the protection of law and does little to deal with the conflicts between humans and wolves brought on by unchecked wolf numbers. This was an unforeseen result of full federal protection. Transferring management authority to the states would, therefore, initiate proper management. Wolves deserve to be managed using the best wildlife science available. The people of Michigan likewise deserve to be benefitted by that management, which would address all values and greatly reduce conflicts. Now that protections have brought the wolf resource back from extirpation, no one in state government would want to see wolves again require protection from either the federal or state Endangered Species Act. If wolves in Michigan declined to the level that would consider relisting, it would be a failure of governance. No resource agency wants to be responsible for such an event.

In this country the word “freedom” engenders strong emotions. Natural resource uses are not immune to these feelings. The freedom to use wildlife resources in the way we most value is deeply held by many people. The state’s job is to provide “side boards” to these uses by using the best wildlife science available to ensure that all of our natural resources are sustainably managed and will be present for future generations. 

I have no doubt that our state wildlife management authorities can and will be successful in this work. We should celebrate the recovery of wolves in Michigan, support the current delisting effort, and demand that our state natural resource agency manage wolves in a sustainable fashion for current and future generations.

Jim Hammill is a retired Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist of 30 years’ experience.

Published on Mar 10, 2021