A confirmed wolf pack in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula ends to evoke one of three emotions; a sense of wonder, a sense of outrage, or a sense of apprehension

The recent news of a confirmed wolf pack in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula tends to evoke one of three reactions from people: a sense of wonder, a sense of outrage, or a sense of apprehension. One of these responses requires a more detailed inspection than the others.

With a dash of wonderment and a pinch of romantic notions, a segment of the public embraces the thought that our state contains enough wilderness that invites such wild beasts and to encourage them to increase and multiply and to expand their range.

Another segment of our population blames the Michigan DNRE for planting the wolves in the first place and now failing to control them. Two problems arise there, however: The state did not plant these wolves. Also, since people usually mean, “employ lethal means” when they say “control,” the decision to undertake that kind of wildlife management is out of the state’s hands.

In the first place, “The wolves that exist now in the U.P. were not reintroduced,” said Brian Roell, Wildlife Biologist for the MDNRE. “In 1974, four wolves were brought to U.P. from Minnesota. They were radio collared and released in Marquette County. Within eight months all of them were dead. No other attempts have been made to bring wolves back to Michigan.”

The generally accepted theory is that the wolves returned on the east end of the U.P. by migrating across ice bridges from Canada and from Minnesota and Wisconsin in the west.

As far as “taking care” of the wolves that are roaming Michigan, Roell said, “We can’t do the lethal management some would like to see because they are under federal protection.”

In 2007, the federal government was ready to remove the Great Lakes population of gray wolves from the Endangered Species List. Thanks to a lawsuit from our friends at the Humane Society of the United States, that action has been stalled, and the wolves remain listed.

So yes, it’s pretty cool that the state is wild enough to play home to wolves and no, the state didn’t reintroduce the wolves and it cannot employ lethal means of controlling them.

As far as possible apprehension over what the confirmation of the wolf tracks might mean with regard to our safety and our opportunities/abilities to enjoy Michigan’s outdoors, the best we can do is to combine history, experience, official documentation and the word on the street and see where all that takes us.

Most reports announcing the news of the wolf tracks confirmed in Cheboygan County last March including the idea that “for the first time officials have confirmed the presence of a wolf pack in the Lower Peninsula.” The thought of a pack of wolves roaming the fingertips of Michigan’s mitten might be enough to cause the hair on your neck to stand up. But let’s take a breath.

According to Roell, the term “pack” can be applied once two wolves have been confirmed in an area. That’s it. “And they do not need to be of the opposite sex, either.” And that’s all that has been confirmed in Cheboygan, tracks from two wolves. Just two.

As far as this being the “first time” a pack has been confirmed in the Lower Peninsula, in a word that phrase is problematical.

Up until the position was eliminated last October, Roell was the MDNRE’s Wolf Coordinator. He still has a finger on the pulse of the wolf action in the state. He said that in October 2004, the first wolf confirmed in the Lower Peninsula was captured in a trap in Presque Isle County. Then in November 2004, the tracks of two wolves were confirmed in the same county. Two. So that makes a pack, right?

“I am aware that another set of tracks was found [in 2004], but I don’t believe the department ever considered that a pack,” said the DNRE’s point man for the story of the 2010 tracks, Tim Reis, the DNRE’s Northeast Michigan Unit Supervisor for Wildlife.

So, perhaps we should just leave the term “pack” out of the discussion for the time being. What remains is this fact: the 2010 tracks showed that there are at least as many wolves in the Lower Peninsula as there were in late 2005. There have been no wolf problems in that time in the Lower Peninsula, so one might easily conclude that our safety and opportunities/abilities to enjoy the outdoors will not be affected because the same number of wolves has been confirmed.

Once source I consulted said a person has a better chance of getting killed or injured by lightening than by a wolf. Roell said, “In the Lower 48, there is no documented case of a wild wolf even biting a person.” Coincidentally, in early March Alaska saw its first wolf kill of a human in all of recorded history. So obviously, anything is possible, but Roell said once a wolf detects a human presence, it is more than likely going to leave the scene before the human ever gets a chance to see it.

As far as attacks on hunting dogs go, Roell said even though wolves are found throughout the U.P., the chance of a wolf attack is “pretty rare. Chances are pretty low. Your dog has a far greater chance of getting hit by a car.”

The DNRE keeps records of wolf “depredations,” which it defines as “predatory attacks resulting in the injury or death of a domestic animal.” In a single event more than one dog might be attacked.

As far as hunting dogs go, there have been no known depredations on bird dogs. Late last December a rabbit hunter’s beagle was killed by wolves near Seney. In 2008, there were no depredations on dogs at all.

Roell summed up the events from 1996 to 2009: “There has been 15 depredation events on dogs (18 dogs) while they were hunting or training. Fourteen of the events involved bear hounds and the other was a rabbit hound (beagle). There have been 21 events involving nonhunting dogs.”

He also said the numbers spiked a bit in 2003, during which 11 dogs were killed, eight in same location by the same bear hunter who lost his dogs then those of a client.

He added, “Wolf depredation on dogs is sporadic and the relationship between the number of dog depredation events and wolf abundance does not appear to be related.”

Also, “There is an increase in the number of depredation events in August and September, but this corresponds with the bear training and hunting activity this time of year.”

Roell figured the way dogs are hunted makes it more likely a wolf will attack bear dogs rather than bird dogs.

“Dogs used for hunting bear are at risk of being attacked by wolves because they are often released at bear bait sites that may have been visited by wolves, and bear hounds are often not in close proximately to the hunter as would be the case in most other types of hunting. Bear dogs can be miles away. A bird hunter is close to his dog. Most are using beepers and bells. Those have been shown to be a deterrent.”

As far as the beagle and the bear dogs go, Roell said, “In most cases it is just being in the wrong time and place.”

That summation might not sit well with the folks I’ve heard from recently. One person wrote, “I also personally know of two hunters that lost five dogs to wolves in the past month and a half. One dog was killed near Engadine and four near Naubinway.”

And Bryan Bilinski owner of Fieldsport, the wing shooter’s favorite store in Traverse City, passed along the following sad note: “One of my good customers, reported, in person, in tears and anger, to me that he had his prized English setter male run off and killed by a pack of wolves behind his cabin near Newberry. He stated the pack appeared as soon as he clipped a dog bell on his puppy setter. He said he picked up the puppy and ran back to his cabin for safety. He threw the puppy inside and ran back out to protect his older dog – gone. Searched for two days. Gone. He reports that another group of rabbit hunters also hunting in the same area reported to him they lost four beagles to wolves recently. By the time the hunters got to the scene of the attack, three of the beagles were disemboweled and the fourth was so badly hurt they had to shoot their own dog. The hunters reported they had to shoot over the heads of the wolves to get them to leave the dead or dying dogs. These beagles were wearing bells too.”

These two accounts indicate 10 bird dogs were killed in four depredation events during late 2009-early 2010. Yet the DNRE says there are no depredations yet reported for 2010 and no bird dogs have ever been reported killed by wolves. Apparently, these depredations didn’t get reported. But think about it: Of the five dog depredations reported in 2009, three involved hunting dogs. If these other cases had been reported that would have increased the number of events on hunting dogs by 233 percent over what is the official tally. The 15 depredations on hunting dogs from 1996 to 2009 would instead be 19, an increase of about 27 percent; the number of dogs killed (25 instead of 18) would increase by 56 percent.

What, therefore, should be the source of our apprehensions?