LANSING, MI — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate on Wednesday approved controversial legislation that could pave the way for future wolf hunting seasons despite two wolf protection proposals set to appear on the November ballot.
The initiated bill was sent to the state Legislature last month by Citizens For Professional Wildlife Management, a hunting and conservation coalition that collected an estimated 297,000 valid signatures in a statewide petition drive.
State senators returned from summer recess to vote on various legislation, including the wolf hunt measure. It was approved in a 23-10 vote, mostly along party lines, and now heads to the House for further consideration.
The measure is similar to — and actually seeks to re-enact — recent laws that first designated the gray wolf as a game animal and gave the Natural Resource Commission the authority to add new species to the list. Both laws were suspended pending outcome of voter referendums this fall.
Supporters say the commission, comprised of seven members appointed by the governor, is best suited to consider scientific rationale for new game species or hunts. The NRC approved the state’s first-ever wolf season last year.
“It’s not about eliminating wolves,” said state Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, whose district includes wolf habitat in the eastern Upper Peninsula. “It’s about a balanced ecosystem, and it’s about providing scientific management.”
The Senate did not have to vote on the pro-hunt bill. Rejection or inaction would send the measure to the statewide ballot, where it would compete with the two anti-wolf hunt proposals.
Approval by the state House, which is set to reconvene for voting on August 27, would render those ballot proposals moot. The initiated legislation also includes a $1 million appropriation to battle invasive species, which may make it immune from future referendum.
Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, a coalition funded primarily by the Humane Society of the United States, organized two successful petition drives in a bid to prevent wolf hunting. The group’s first effort was rebuffed by the Legislature, which passed a second law when the first was suspended.
Several Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, urged Republican leadership to send the measure to the ballot, arguing that approval would disenfranchise voters who had signed the anti-hunt petitions.
“I’m not going to debate the merits of wolf hunting, because I really shouldn’t have to. There are initiatives supporting both sides of the argument that are intended to let the people decide.” Whitmer said.
“But I do think we should be debating why the desires of people who want to kill wolves outweigh those who do not. Because that’s what this is all about.”
Sen. Tom Casperson, who sponsored both wolf hunt laws facing referendum this fall, questioned why the Humane Society was focused on Michigan and suggested its true aim is to take away all hunting privileges, which the group denies.
“The sportsmen decided to do the initiative, and it’s within their right to do it,” he said, referencing the third petition drive that sent the measure to the Legislature.
Michigan’s wolf population grew dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s, prompting removal from both state and federal endangered species lists. There are now an estimated 636 wolves in the Upper Peninsula.
Supporters say that wolf hunts are an effective population-control tool for limiting attacks on livestock and pets, arguments bolstered by recent news that wolves had killed five hunting dogs in the span of three days, along with a cow.
Twenty-two wolves were legally killed in a hunt that ran from mid-November through December in three zones of the Upper Peninsula, about half the number that the state had hoped for.
An MLive.com investigation found government half-truths, falsehoods and livestock numbers skewed by a single farmer distorted some arguments for the inaugural hunt.
Politicians “can’t be trusted on this issue, but the voters can be trusted, and should be allowed to hear the arguments from both sides and make an informed judgment this November,” said Jill Fritz of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.
“We call on House members to end this abuse of power, and restore respect for the democratic process by letting the people vote.”
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources sold 1,200 wolf hunting licenses last year, generating roughly $120,000 for the Game and Fish Protection Fund, according to the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency.
The $1 million appropriation proposed in the new bill would be drawn from the state’s general fund. The measure would also extend a provision of the 2013 law that gave free hunting, fishing and trapping licenses to active military members.