LANSING (AP) -- The Republican-led state Senate approved legislation Thursday that
could block a group's effort to ban wolf hunting in Michigan and make hunting and fishing rights a part of the state constitution.
Legislation passed on a 25 to 11 party line vote Thursday would empower the Natural Resources Commission to decide which types of wildlife could be hunted. If signed into law, the measure effectively renders meaningless a potential statewide vote next year on overturning the Legislature's designation of wolves as a game species.
Lawmakers say wolf hunting is necessary to ensure the safety of citizens and livestock in rural areas where the wolf population is larger. But opponents say the measure is an attempt by lawmakers to suppress the voice of the people.
Currently, only the Legislature has the power to designate a game species, but under the proposal passed Thursday, the seven-member regulatory panel appointed by the governor would also have that power. The legislation originally included a $1 million appropriation, which means under Michigan law that it can't be subject to referendum on the ballot. That language was removed from the bill Thursday.
Lawmakers approved the measure designating wolves as a game species last year. Earlier this month, opponents gathered the more than 240,000 signatures necessary to request a statewide vote on whether the animals should be hunted. If a certain number of the signatures are considered valid, wolf hunting would be suspended until a vote is held in 2014.
But if the bill passed by the Senate Thursday -- which now heads to the House -- is signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, even if voters strike down wolf hunting in 2014, the NRC could approve wolf hunting anyway.
Jill Fritz, the director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, the group backing the proposed referendum, told the more than 100 opponents protesting the bill on the steps of the Capitol Tuesday that the measure is an "extreme power grab by politicians or a deliberate attempt to subvert democracy and silence the voice of Michigan voters.
People Against the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called on its members to contact Michigan lawmakers to stop the measure before the people will lose their democratic voice.
Republican Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba, who is sponsoring the measure, said in Ironwood, an Upper Peninsula city in his district, parents are worried to let their children outside because of the wolves.
Lawmakers say the Natural Resources Commission is better at determining wildlife management policies -- using scientific data, such as changes in the wolf population -- than the Legislature.
Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, who represents the eastern Upper Peninsula, says he voted for the bill because it is important to protect the people being impacted by wolves. Currently wolves can be killed by landowners if they present a danger to them or their livestock.
In 2010, when Walker was on the campaign trail for his first Senate term, he says constituents would stop him during his speeches to ask about his position on the wolves.
"They need to have this balance in place with regards to the wolf population," Walker said. "It's a real issue in the U.P. and I don't think the NRC is thinking about getting rid of the wolves. I know they aren't. I think they are looking at getting rid of some of the wolves where there is a high concentration."
Walker said the issue is about giving people in the Upper Peninsula a voice in Lansing.
While more than the 250,000 petition signatures have been collected to put the referendum on the ballot in 2014, Walker says a large number of those signers are probably from downstate areas.
Only about 3 percent of the Michigan population resides in the Upper Peninsula.
Senate Bill 288 is also expected to get strong support in the Republican-led House, where more than a dozen co-sponsors signed on to a similar House version of the bill.
Rep. Frank Foster, R-Petoskey, previously held out supporting the bill because of the provision that would have stopped all referendums. But, with the $1 million appropriation removed from the bill, he says plans to support Senate Bill 288 when it comes to the floor for a vote.
"I will vote for (the bill) based on the shared authority with the Natural Resources Commission -- they are the experts on this," Foster said.
Last month, the commission recommended scheduling a two-month season this fall during which hunters could kill a maximum of 43 wolves. The hunt would be held in three zones where Department of Natural Resources officials say they've received a high number of complaints and other control methods have failed.
Snyder on Tuesday took no position on the legislation, saying it is up to lawmakers to set their agenda.
"That's part of their prerogative of coming up with what they think is the best way to handle issues," he told reporters. "I think the general concept of saying that we should do scientifically based hunting is a good concept."
Michigan Tech University biologist John Vucetich, a wolf and moose specialist, said while scientific data is important for determining wildlife management policies, another essential element is the opinion of the people.
"Science is not particularly suited to tell us what is a good and right thing and that's where democracy plays such an important role," he said. "This bill is intended to thwart a democratic process that is a very important part of wildlife management."
The Senate also approved a measure Thursday that would add a proposal to the 2014 ballot that would enshrine the right to hunt and fish in the state's constitution.
Republican Sen. Dave Hildebrand of Lowell, who is sponsoring the legislation, said he has wanted to add such language to the state's constitution for a while, but acknowledged that the referendum to ban wolf hunting "may have given it more energy this time around."
Hildebrand said hunting would still be held to the rules and regulations laid out by the state, but the constitutional amendment, would ensure that hunting is "protected for years to come."
Brandon Hubbard, Petoskey News-Review Staff Writer, contributed to this report.