In Michigan, a war over wolves

Detroit Free PressJuly 3, 2013 

Endangered Wolf Politics

Michigan will hold its first wolf hunt in November and December. According to many of Michigan's Upper Peninsula residents the wolves have grown increasingly less afraid of humans and have made an impact on the local deer population. The controversial plan has also drawn opponents to the hunting of wolves.


— John Koski grips the old blanket in knobby hands weathered from a lifetime of farming. He pulls it back to reveal the carcasses of two cows, or what’s left of them. More than half of each is picked clean, the spine and rib bones almost a polished white, with no traces of flesh. Some of the rib bones are snapped and show evidence of being gnawed upon.

The mutilated cattle, found this spring on Koski’s 1,000-acre farm in the tiny community of Matchwood in Ontonogan County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula , are the latest casualties in his ongoing war with wolves. The 68-year-old farmer has had more cattle killed or injured by wolves than any farmer in the state, 119 in the past three years, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Government-paid sharpshooters and trappers for years have killed dozens of the wolves who’ve taken a liking to Koski’s cattle.

“I think this is the last year I’m going to keep cattle here because I’m losing so many,” Koski said, adding that he may move them to his other farmland in Bessemer, about 35 miles away.

There are no records of a human ever being killed by a wolf in the wild in Michigan. But Koski thinks that could change.

“Sooner or later, those wolves are going to kill a person, or a kid waiting for a school bus,” he said.

The far western Upper Peninsula is a 600-mile drive from Detroit, farther away than Nashville, Tenn. Here, the wolf debate is not an abstract one. These are the people who’ve lost cattle, lost pets, who’ve encountered wolves in their backyards.

It’s uncertain what will result from Michigan’s controversial, first-ever wolf hunt, set by state officials for November and December after a series of meetings statewide that featured dozens of hunt opponents. But nowhere does the future of the wolf and the hunt have more relevance than here, among those living sometimes uncomfortably close to them.

Over the last few years, the city of Ironwood, about an hour west of Koski’s farm, has seen the nearby wolf population increase, as well as encounters between wolves and people, city manager Scott Erickson said.

“There’s a wolf problem in the area – I think everybody understands that,” he said. “I’ve never heard anybody say they want to eliminate wolves, but just manage them in an appropriate manner.”

Some in town, however, are less measured in their view.

“If folks in Detroit want to vote to protect the wolves, we’ll send them down below the bridge to them,” said a man getting his hair cut in a barbershop downtown, who asked that his name not be used.

David Bolen ate breakfast at the Breakwater Family Restaurant in town, recalling his wolf encounter from last fall.

“I live in a senior apartment complex by a Little League baseball field,” he said. “I watched a wolf come from an area we call The Caves right across the field – on Vaughn Street, right in town. It was probably 20, 30 yards from the senior apartments.”

The 73-year-old has lived in the Ironwood area his entire life. “That was no coyote,” he said.

Bolen supports the wolf hunt.

“If they are impacting the local deer herd or endangering local people here in Ironwood, I think it’s proper for the DNR to regulate it,” he said.

Robert Lynn lives with his wife, Clara May Lynn, in a residential neighborhood on Sunset Road. He recounted seeing a mangled deer carcass in his backyard on the morning of Feb. 11, 2011, then that evening looking out the back window of his home to see two wolves eating from it. They were less than 15 yards from his house.

“I was rather astounded to see wolves this close to a residential area,” he said.

The DNR hired a local hunter to capture and destroy the wolves.

Lifelong Ironwood resident Al Clemens said the wolves have “decimated” the local deer population, affecting the popular – and economically important – local deer hunt. In recent years, hunters at his deer camp south of town have seen only about one-sixth of the deer they used to see, he said.

“We had wolves there; they weren’t afraid of you,” he said. “You could walk into camp and see a wolf maybe 35-40 yards away. He didn’t run or anything, just walked off.”

Ironwood hunter Jim Mildren noted wolves are opportunistic hunters that will kill deer in the dead of winter and store their bodies in snow almost like a refrigerator.

“If they can kill all of the deer in a deer yard, they will,” he said.

“I love to hear the wolf’s howl; I love to see their tracks. But I want there to be a better balance, and I want them to be afraid of people.”

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