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'Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf'... The politics behind a wolf-hunt in Michigan

Today on It’s Just Politics, it’s all about the politics of wildlife. Or, wildlife management that is. Okay, might sound slightly boring so, how about this: “shooting wolves.” That tends to get people worked up.

In fact, groups are worked up. So worked up that they're gathering signatures right now to put a referendum on next year’s ballot to try and reverse the new state law that could clear the way for a wolf hunting season in the Upper Peninsula. We should point out this does not create a wolf-hunting season. Instead, it makes the wolf a game mammal, and allows the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to declare a wolf-hunting season if it sees a need.

Opponents say it’s too soon for a wolf-hunt, that the gray wolf just came off the endangered species list last year. But there have been some problems with wolves moving into "people territory," chasing pets, getting into trash… you know, being all wolfish. Eight wolves were shot last year in Iron Mountain by wildlife officials.

The issue has also become a point of contention between Indian tribes in Michigan and the state. The tribes see the wolf as sacred. “In our tradition, in our culture, we believe that the wolf is our brother. And, I don’t mean this to sound very mystical, but in our long-standing tradition, we believe that what happens to the wolf, eventually happens to us,” said the Sault Sainte Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians' Aaron Payment.

Opponents of a wolf-hunt want to get this ballot drive wrapped up by late March, and approved for the ballot. If and when that happens, the law is suspended until voters deliver their verdict. No chance for a wolf season in 2013 or 2014. So, they’re gathering signatures. That doesn’t mean they’ll get enough. Certainly we've seen plenty of petition drives fizzle.

Opponents of the wolf hunting law – the Humane Society, the ASPCA, American Indian tribes – need to get more than 122,000 of registered voters to qualify for the ballot. They’ll want a healthy cushion, too, to make up for signatures that get tossed for technical reasons. However, there are some good reasons that they just might make it. The Humane Society alone has more than 400,000 names on its contact list in Michigan. That’s people who have at some point made a donation to the group. It will take just a fraction of those to get enough names. Also, the Humane Society has done this before in 2006 with a referendum that toppled the mourning dove hunt. So recent history tells us this group has the wherewithal to pull it off.

One of the things we’ve talked about before on It’s Just Politics is the ripple effect of ballot questions. So, this also raises the question of how a wolf hunting proposal might affect one particular group’s efforts to pursue and capture that most elusive prey: man. Or, really, a majority of man. We know that ballot questions – especially highly charged, emotional issues – can draw out otherwise reluctant voters. The effect will be different in different parts of the state.

A wolf-hunting question may play one for a statewide candidate and another way for a local candidate – for the state House or the state Senate – depending on where they’re from. Look for Republicans and Democrats north of Clare to distance themselves from the anti-wolf hunting effort. It’s safe to say that in northern Michigan, hunting rights - pro-wolf hunting - will be the popular position.

Downstate, it will be more of a mixed bag. And that's a source of frustration for Tom Casperson. He’s the state senator who sponsored the wolf-hunting law. He’s a Republican from the western UP, where the wolves are. And he thinks it’s a little unfair that this question – if and when it makes it to the ballot – will be decided, really, in southeast Michigan, where two-thirds of the state’s voters are and where the wolves aren’t. So, he’s got an idea that he thinks just might change some minds, “I’d be willing to support loading them up and bring them down to these regions where people are saying we need to have more wolves.”

Ship the wolves to Detroit. See how they like ‘em in the Kensington Metro-Park. Nice.

Oh, who’s afraid of the big, bad…

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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