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By Carol Stiffler

Lou Bennett owns 20 acres of land east of Newberry and says he’s fed deer herds there for 30 years.

It was perfect, he said. The woods offered plenty to eat, and many places for deer to hide. There was no pressure. Each winter, he’d feed between 250 and 300 deer.

That began to change a few winters ago, and Bennett saw the herd drop hundreds of animals at a time.

“Last year I was down to about 100, 125,” he said. “This year, not one deer came back. Not one.”

Bennett installed cameras to watch in his woods and sees nothing but wolves. They come through once a week, he said, presumably to check for deer, and move on again. “There’s something way out of balance,” he said.

Bennett is one of a growing number of local outdoors-men and women who have great concerns about the number of gray wolves in the Upper Peninsula. It’s been a concern for years, and it’s rising to a fever pitch.

Bennett hosted a meeting with several members of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources last week and invited hunters to come with questions. Word of the meeting traveled fast, and about 70 hunters attended the mid-afternoon meeting. Four or five times as many would have come, they promised, if the meeting had been held after work hours.

Rich Rossway, a representative from the office of U.S. Representative Jack Bergman, was also present.

Chief among their concerns was the belief that the overabundance of wolves has dramatically reduced the local deer population.

The gray wolf has been federally protected since 1978, when it had been all but eliminated from the regional landscape. Reports indicate there were only three wolves in the Upper Peninsula in 1989.

They’ve rebounded. Annual wolf counts in the Upper Peninsula indicate there is a minimum of 662 wolves up here now. And that is a minimum – the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which is tasked with counting the wolves, knows they can’t account for every single animal.

It’s more than enough to consider the gray wolf a stable species. Under federal standards, the local wolf population would be considered stable when a total of 100 wolves could be counted between Michigan and Wisconsin combined – regardless of the breakdown between the states – for five years in a row. That standard was exceeded in 1994 and the combined Michigan/Wisconsin wolf count is now higher than 1,000.

Terry Minzey, regional supervisor of the Upper Peninsula region of the DNR, attended the meeting and said his department is unable to act against the federal law, but would continue to relay concerns up the chain of command.

But meeting attendees want more than that. Expressing their frustration and saying the situation felt “hopeless”, some told the DNR it’s hardly worth buying a hunting license anymore.

One hunter said he owns 220 acres in Luce County, but has to drive to another county to hunt because there are no deer left on his property.

Another said for the past two hunting seasons in a row, he has seen a mere six deer from his blind, and three wolves – both seasons. He may have bought his last hunting license, he said.

These avid outdoors men, many of whom have hunted for decades, don’t expect the deer numbers to recover in their lifetimes. They shared their concerns now for the future of hunting, for the local economy, and property values.

The hunters want wolf numbers to be brought to manageable levels so the deer population can recover. They want to shoot wolves.

It could happen. In March 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services announced a plan to remove the gray wolf from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife. Expect a legal battle to follow, said Cody Norton, because interest groups, like the Center for Biological Diversity, oppose removing protection from wolves. The gray wolf would be managed and monitored at the state level then, and Michigan is ready with a wolf management plan that would include a hunting season on wolves. Idaho, Wyoming and Montana have already managed to move gray wolves off the protected list and the group at the meeting want Michigan’s senators to push to make that change for our state as well.

Currently, the penalty for illegally killing a gray wolf in Michigan is up to 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, plus the costs of prosecution.

DNR Wildlife Biologist Kristie Sitar said wolves have a right to exist here as a species, though she knows they do cause problems for hunters and ranchers. Sitar is tasked with counting the local wolves and heads directly into their territory to do a visual, manual count in specific units each year.

“Are there more than enough to be a viable population?” she asked. “Yes, absolutely. And it is also too much in the eyes of many many people because they do have impacts on deer numbers and some of those wolves are badly behaved and kill livestock and hunting dogs.”

Lakefield resident Steve English, who had a 30-year career working for the forest service in Idaho and Oregon, believes people and wolves can’t share spaces.

“I don’t think there’s really a place for them here,” said English, who attended the meeting. “But they wouldn’t be extinct – there are thousands in Canada and Alaska and Europe.”

Bennett thinks a reduction of about 95% of the current wolf population would be appropriate. Meanwhile, he’s got some property east of Newberry that he’s heartbroken about. He thinks he might sell it.

“How can I sell it?” he asked. “I can’t sell it as a deer camp. Maybe I can sell it to snowmobilers.”