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WOLF populations then and now


January 01, 2018
Michigan DNR Wildlife Division surveys indicate timber wolves are now present in all the counties in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Brian Roell – MI DNR Wildlife Biologist said "two small packs of wolves were documented in the Keweenaw Peninsula in 2011. Keweenaw was the was the last UP county for wolves to colonize." Wolves were native to Michigan, until serious hunting, trapping, and bounty killing reduced their numbers and eventually extirpated them from Michigan. Wolves remained essentially nonexistent in Upper Michigan (other than Isle Royale) from the 1950s to the 1980s. A failed attempt by Northern Michigan University and the Michigan DNR to reintroduce four wolves to the Upper Peninsula occurred in 1974. Eventually wolves moved from Wisconsin into Upper Michigan following strong prey populations in the early 1990s. The Wisconsin wolves originally came from Upper Minnesota where they still were maintaining a viable population.

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Wolf killed near Iron River Michigan in 1920. Wolves were killed off and disappeared from the U.P. by the late 1950s. Alpha Mastodon Historical Society photo
In 1992 Upper Michigan wolves were estimated to be about 20 animals by the DNR. Wolf populations increased significantly with good numbers of their primary prey population of deer. Attitudes about wolves were fairly accepting initially, although as wolf populations increased, attitudes about wolves by hunters and livestock farmers became less favorable. Winter weather plays a strong role in deer populations and as the deer populations recently significantly decreased; attitudes about wolves deteriorated further.

Recent Michigan DNR Wildlife surveys determined the wolf population in the U.P. is at about 618 animals. Wolf populations have been strong for more than a decade now. The Michigan Wolf Recovery and Management Plan (1997) defined a viable population as 200 animals for five consecutive years to allow removal from the state endangered species list. The Michigan wolf population has exceeded 200 animals for more than a decade. Michigan DNR Wildlife Division has petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service (US FWS) to remove wolves from the Federal Endangered Species List and return them to Michigan DNR management. Since 2007 wolves in Michigan have been removed from the Federal Endangered Species List three times by the US FWS, although each time environmental groups such as the Humane Society of the United States have used bureaucratic technicalities successfully to litigate the return of wolves to the Endangered Species List.

Richard Thiel, noted Wisconsin Wildlife Biologist, conducted extensive historical research on Wisconsin and adjoining Upper Michigan wolf populations and published his findings in a book titled 'The Timber Wolf in Wisconsin – The Death of a Majestic Predator.' Thiel reviewed all of the available historical Wisconsin and Upper Michigan wildlife records including early Wisconsin DNR studies, game warden reports of wolf packs activities, bounty records dating back to the 1800s, and all recorded wolf information in state archives. His account documents wolf populations and their demise in Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula counties by the mid-1900s.

Thiel concluded that "Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan's vast expanses of old age virgin forest" did not originally support much of a prey base. Deer were known to be at a much lower population than present day conditions that include extensive logging providing better deer prey base. Thiel wrote "The wolves that were present probably hung tightly to areas of disturbance, such as wind throws and recently burned areas, where there was likely to be plentiful deer."

An example of dramatic change in timber types that support prey species is a case study on Cooks Run in Iron County on the Ottawa National Forest. Based on timber species listed on the original land survey in the 1850s prior to "European development" the study concluded that more than 90 percent of the Cooks Run watershed was climax forest (maple, hemlock, cedar, etc.). Today that same watershed has almost 80 percent early age species like aspen which is excellent forage for both deer and beaver. It is a reasonable conclusion that both species are dramatically more abundant in that area than they were historically. Strong predator populations cannot exist without strong prey populations.

Thiel followed Wisconsin DNR records to estimate the Wisconsin timber wolf population from about 1900 on to 1964. From 1920 to 1924 he found there to be evidence of 18 wolf packs throughout the state with the average pack size of 8.5 animals. In addition, with the evidence of lone wolves, he derived an estimate of 204 wolves. His estimates declined to 156 wolves in the early 1930s and declined to less than five animals in the early 1960s. The environmental conditions in the U.P. and level of persecution of wolves was also similar in northern Wisconsin. In the 1930s Thiel found evidence of eight wolf packs in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The White Pine Logging Supervisor, John Nelligan, wrote about his life living and logging in the U.P. and Northern Wisconsin in his book titled, 'A White Pine Empire.' He spent over 30 years in the woods in the late 1800s (before most area human development) during the white pine logging era. Many of those types of books embellish their wildlife experiences, particularly wolf encounters. He stated in his 30 years in that area he saw wolf tracks and occasionally heard a wolf howl, although he only saw two wolves the entire time. Now days wolf sightings are not uncommon by U.P. outdoor enthusiasts. I have personally observed wolves numerous times throughout Iron and Dickinson Counties near where I worked and live. I annually get a number of photos of wolves on my game cameras both near our house outside Crystal Falls and our deer camp on the Ottawa National Forest in West Iron County. In the last two years two game cameras, one at each location, has taken pictures of wolves 12 separate days ranging from one to six wolves each time.

According to the Michigan DNR, wolves were completely eliminated in the Lower Peninsula by 1935. Wolves have not been able to readily move back into the lower Peninsula because of the geographic barriers between the significant population of wolves in the U.P. across the Straits of Mackinac. For any other access they would not likely travel the long distance through urbanization to access Lower Michigan around the lower portion of Lake Michigan. Although biologists have found the earliest evidence that wolves may be present in the Northern Lower Peninsula as one was killed after being misidentified. Genetic evidence has also been found to confirm another living wolf. With the major geographic barriers, it may be long time before wolves naturally reestablish a breeding population in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan through natural emigration.

Coyotes were not native to the Midwestern north woods. Thiel reports as wolves were removed from the ecosystem coyotes were able to move into the open ecological niche. Coyotes have become abundant in the north woods area of the Lake States. It has been widely reported following wolf reintroduction and full recovery of wolf populations on Yellowstone National Park that coyote abundance declined in the park. Tyler Petroelje, Chief Research Assistant of the Upper Peninsula Predator/Deer study said they have found mixed results for coyote abundance. He stated that "coyote abundance is low near Baraga and Pelkie but as you move south near Escanaba, coyote populations appear to be thriving." Coyotes and wolves often do not overlap and wolves are known to kill coyotes in their core denning area.

Based on the historical information available and common ecological realities about predator and prey, wolves appear to be more abundant in Upper Michigan than they were historically. Wolves are the top predator in their environment and their only effective predator and factor that would affect wolf populations is man.

Wolves elicit a very mixed reaction among Michigan outdoor enthusiasts. Some are completely thrilled with increasing wolf populations and relish any chance to encounter this majestic predator. Others dislike wolves due to the impact they can have on deer, their deer hunting, or locally on livestock and pets (dogs). Many are in the middle where they actually get a thrill from seeing wolves or their sign, although they are not as thrilled when it is regular sightings in their favorite hunting area or close to where they live. Regardless of how you feel about them, the reestablishment of wolves in Michigan has been a success of a native species reestablishing itself. Now will come considerable legal and political action to see if wolves remain on the Federal Endangered Species List or are permanently returned to Michigan DNR management as has already occurred in some northwestern States. No matter what happens residents of the Upper Peninsula will continue to live with wolves and occasionally hear the howl of the wolf.

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