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How many wolf hunt questions can we squeeze onto the November ballot?

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

It looks like a referendum on the controversial issue of wolf-hunting is headed to the November ballot – again. This will be the second hunting-related ballot question (and, possibly, not the last) voters will decide in a little less than eight months.

The Keep Michigan Wolves Protected Campaign turned in petition signatures to the state Bureau of Elections just yesterday. It takes 161,305 signatures, and we can reasonably expect the campaign has enough names. Because, after all, they’ve done this before.

Most recently, just last year, when Keep Michigan Wolves Protected filed enough signatures to suspend and challenge the first Michigan wolf hunting law adopted after the gray wolf was taken off the federal endangered species list. That is the first referendum challenge and it is already on the November ballot.

But the Legislature, as well as Gov. Rick Snyder, would not be thwarted. They adopted a second law to allow wolf hunting (among other things), and that is the target of this newest referendum campaign.

And that will settle it? Not likely.

There is, in fact, another petition drive out there still gathering names. The Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management is working hunting supply stores, gun shows, and outdooramas, gathering signatures for a citizen-initiated law that would effectively circumvent the Keep Michigan Wolves Protected ballot question.

If Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management gets its way, this would be the third law in less than two years crafted and designed to allow wolf hunting. But it also goes much further than wolf hunting.

That is because hunters’ rights groups want to stop these periodic efforts by groups like the Humane Society and the Audubon Society to call a halt to hunting seasons. They’ve now done it twice with wolf hunting. They did it in 2006 with a referendum on mourning doves. And there are certainly similar fights over what species should be hunted that will take place in the future. (The sandhill crane seems a likely candidate.)

The Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management initiative (as well as the current law the state is defending from a referendum challenge) would put decisions on hunting seasons and game species squarely with the Department of Natural Resources and its governing body, the Natural Resources Commission. Unlike state laws, their decisions could not be challenged via referendum.

The wolf hunting controversy and ballot campaigns have served to raise the profile of the once-mighty Michigan United Conservation Clubs. The MUCC is the driving force behind the Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management. It comes from the conservation end of the environmental movement – outdoors people, hunters, anglers. It was largely responsible for the state’s returnable bottle law back in the 1970s, and was a force to be reckoned with in Lansing for decades.

The MUCC has been looking to get its mojo back. The wolf hunting fight has put it back in the game in a big way, and established MUCC itself as the dominant voice for hunters’ rights at the state Capitol. And one of the things MUCC really wants is this new law – and no more referendums on hunting seasons.

On the other side, the big dog (yeah, we said it) in Keep Michigan Wolves Protected is the Humane Society and its national reach for resources to pull into this fight.

The next job for the Humane Society and Keep Michigan Wolves Protected will come after the Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management turns in its signatures. (We expect that effort will succeed.) That would set off the process for enacting petition-initiated, citizen-sponsored legislation. It would go to the Legislature which would have to adopt it, or it goes to the ballot.

Hunters’ rights groups will use all their clout to get the Legislature to approve the law. The anti-wolf hunting group will use all the muscle it can muster to convince lawmakers to let the issue go to the ballot, and duke it out in November – when they hope a crowded ballot will result in a sweep of “no” votes on all the questions. That would take down both wolf hunting laws and the Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management initiative.

But if Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management wins, either in the Legislature or the ballot, that law could not be challenged by a referendum. It would be referendum-proof because the drafters made sure to put a $1 million appropriation in it – ostensibly to fight invasive species. But it also, under the Michigan Constitution, becomes a budget bill that can’t be stopped by a referendum.

But that’s not necessarily the final word. The opponents could circle back in the next election cycle with their own proposal to initiate a law that would undo all that, and start it all over again.

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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