TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Michigan voters may get two chances during the 2014 general election to have their say on hunting wolves.
An opposition group announced Tuesday it will begin collecting petition signatures seeking a referendum on a recently enacted law giving the state Natural Resources Commission authority to decide which animals should be designated as game species that can be hunted. Previously only the Legislature had that power.
Lawmakers approved that measure in response to a petition drive aimed at overturning a separate law enacted last December that changed the gray wolf's status from protected to game species and authorized the commission to schedule a hunt. Gov. Rick Snyder signed both measures.
"It's only fair to allow citizens to weigh in on this important question of wildlife policy," said Jill Fritz, director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.
Wolves once roamed across Michigan and most of the lower 48 states, but were nearly wiped out in the last century. After they were placed on the federal endangered species list in 1974, a remnant population in Minnesota began expanding and gradually migrated to Michigan's Upper Peninsula where the predator has flourished. A recent census by the state Department of Natural Resources put the population at 658.
Some U.P. residents say the wolves are out of hand, preying on livestock and pets and venturing too close to residential areas. Defenders of the wolves say people already have the authority to kill those that attack their animals, and that the wily predators naturally avoid humans.
Fritz's group collected 255,000 signatures requesting a statewide vote on the December law. The Board of State Canvassers certified the signatures in late May. But by then, the Legislature had approved the second law authorizing the Natural Resources Commission to schedule a wolf hunt, which rendered a referendum on the first measure largely symbolic. It will take place, however.
The commission, whose members are appointed by the governor on a rotating basis, voted in May to let hunters and trappers kill 43 wolves in three sections of the U.P. between Nov. 15 and Dec. 31.
Now opponents are targeting the second law that authorized the commission's action, which Fritz described as "a radical overreach by some state lawmakers."
If her group gathers enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot and the canvassers certify them, the law will be put on hold until after the election. But Fritz said it's highly unlikely her team can move quickly enough to forestall the hunt this fall.
Either way, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs will fight to retain both laws, said spokesman Tony Hansen, who contended the opposition was generated largely by out-of-state animal rights groups.
Russ Mason, chief of the DNR's wildlife division, said the Natural Resources Commission's decision to establish a hunting and trapping season was based on scientific data and extensive study.
"If you look at the record from all the testimony and all the information that the commission requested ... I don't know how you come to any other conclusion unless you are motivated by something other than science and what is best for the resources," Mason said.