The Michigan state Senate voted the other day to allow hunting of wolves. The vote is a direct threat to these wild creatures, of course. But also in the crosshairs are the voters of Michigan.
The bill is a response to a pair of ballot initiatives sponsored by Keep Michigan Wolves Protected that attracted some 400,000 signatures. The measures would end the wolf hunt authorized last year by the state and block a state commission from designating wolves a game species.
But this exercise in citizen participation and direct democracy may not amount to much. The bill approved by the Senate and pending a vote this month in the House would neutralize them by giving power over wolf hunting to the commission — and attaching funding to it, thus rendering it exempt from being overruled by a citizen vote.
The issue stirs strong feelings in our neighbor state. Gray wolves once numbered 2 million in North America, ranging across most of the continent. But they were nearly wiped out everywhere a generation ago, not least in Michigan. By the time the gray wolf was listed as endangered under federal law in 1974, there were only six left there.
With that protection, the species has managed a steady comeback, reaching a current population of more than 600 in the Upper Pensinsula. Wolves were removed from the endangered species list in this region of the country in 2012, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded they were "in the best position they've been in for the past 100 years."
From that recovery, some people in Michigan drew the conclusion that protecting wolves from hunting is a good thing. Others thought it proved that wolves are too numerous and need culling. The latter prevailed on the legislature and the Natural Resource Commission to allow a hunt, and over 46 days last November and December, hunters killed 23.
A couple of dozen trophies are not going to put the wolf back on a path to extinction. But it's hard to see the need to reduce numbers that are a tiny fraction of what they used to be. The goal of Americans who value wildlife is not to allow it a small, confined space in which to survive. It's to assure it a broad expanse of habitat in which to flourish. We'd love to see wolves re-establish packs throughout the Midwest, including Illinois.
Some people regard these beasts as a danger to life and property. But contrary to myth, notes Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, "there has never been a recorded wolf attack on a human in Michigan."
Wolves kill an average of 11 cows per year in the state — out of a state cattle population of 1.1 million. Livestock owners are allowed to kill problem wolves, and they are entitled to financial compensation for animals lost to predation. Wolves are valuable, though, in keeping deer in check, which is a boon to moose.
Michiganders may disagree on these matters. But that's all the more reason to let them decide at the polls how best to treat wolves. Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer upbraided her colleagues for intervening where they were not needed. "It's not as if we don't have serious work we could be doing here today," she said. "But on the one day you bother to show up for work this month, you ignore all that and come here to take away the rights of the people to vote again."
Wolves may survive if the legislature refuses to let the voters have a say. What could go on the endangered list are democracy and citizens' faith in government.