TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Most of the wolves killed during the recent hunt in Michigan's Upper Peninsula probably belonged to packs that have caused problems for people, which partially fulfilled a primary objective of the season even though fewer animals were shot than expected, state wildlife biologists say.
Twenty-three gray wolves died in the state's first regulated hunt of the predator since the upper Great Lakes population was dropped from the federal endangered species list in 2012. The Department of Natural Resources had set a target of 43 wolves for the season, which ran from Nov. 15 through December.
But DNR officials told The Associated Press last week that 17 of the kills happened in places within known territories of packs with reputations for "conflicts," a term that includes repeatedly attacking livestock or pets and exhibiting "fearless behavior" around people.
The places where wolves were shot were typically within 5 miles of a farm or other location where conflicts had occurred, said Adam Bump, a DNR fur-bearing animal specialist. It's not a stretch to link the wolves with those places because packs frequently travel 10 to 20 miles daily, he said.
Together, the data suggest — but doesn't guarantee — that most of the wolves taken were problem animals, Bump said. The agency had described reducing human-wolf clashes as justifying a hunt in places where other control measures, including allowing owners to shoot wolves assaulting livestock or pets, were proving inadequate.
"From my perspective, the first hunt with all the unknowns we had was a success," he said. "I'd guess that virtually every person who hunted wolves had never hunted wolves before. They're learning new techniques."
The DNR will continue processing information such as age and reproductive data collected from inspection of wolf carcasses and responses to a hunter survey, Bump said. The agency also will update the state's population estimate, which last year totaled 658.
But the findings did not convince groups opposed to wolf hunting, who are pushing ballot measures in the November election that they hope will prevent it from happening again in Michigan. Their leaders argued that farmers and dog owners already had legal authority to use lethal force against wolves attacking their animals under laws that took effect when wolves were stripped of federal protection.
"At no point did we see any thorough analysis by the DNR that this new system was not working before rushing into allowing an open season," said Jill Fritz, state director of The Humane Society of the United States and the director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, which is campaigning to end wolf hunting.
DNR statistics show a sharp drop-off in wolf depredation between 2012 and 2013. The number of attacks dropped from 43 to 20, while livestock deaths fell from 64 to 13. Those figures suggest lethal controls were succeeding and should have been given more time, said Nancy Warren, an Upper Peninsula resident and regional director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition.
Brian Roell, a DNR wolf biologist, said the decline probably resulted largely from last year's long, snowy winter, which made it easier for wolves to catch deer. Wisconsin and Minnesota, the other Great Lakes states with wolves, had similar reductions in depredations during the same period, he said.
The DNR required hunters who shot a wolf to report the location and submit the carcass for inspection. Five were taken in an area of Gogebic County making up the westernmost wolf hunting zone. Fourteen were killed in a zone including portions of Baraga, Houghton, Ontonagon and Gogebic counties, while four were taken in the easternmost zone with portions of Luce and Mackinac counties.
In addition to knocking down wolf numbers in those areas and eliminating problem animals, the DNR's goal was to make the survivors more fearful of humans and less likely to cause trouble in the future, Bump said. Several more seasons would be needed to determine how well hunting is accomplishing those things, he said.
"I think it was successful," said Drew YoungDyke, spokesman for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. "The goal wasn't to reduce the overall population. They didn't take more than they wanted to."
The DNR may propose rule changes to improve hunters' success rate, including allowing trapping, which was prohibited last year in Michigan but is allowed in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Bump said. He acknowledged the practice would draw strong resistance.
Fritz said trapping is inhumane, but, YoungDyke said it should be considered. Modern foot-hold traps don't have the painful gripping "teeth" of older models but keep wolves from escaping until hunters arrive to finish them off, he said.
Even as such tactics are debated, a more fundamental question is whether wolf hunting will continue in Michigan.
Opponents hope to gather enough voter signatures to force referendums on repealing two recently enacted laws allowing the hunts. Supporters, meanwhile, are circulating petitions for a pro-hunting measure that could gain legislative approval and effectively nullify the statewide votes.
A pending lawsuit is challenging the federal government's decision to remove wolves from the endangered list. If successful, hunting would be banned once more.
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