Mich. wolf population nears saturation point

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — A 15-year surge in the Upper Peninsula's gray wolf numbers is losing steam, which suggests the population may be nearing its saturation point, a state biologist said Friday.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said its latest census detected 405 wolves, up from 360 the previous year. The 13 percent jump was similar to the previous year's rate, suggesting a slowdown is under way, said Brian Roell, a DNR wildlife biologist and coordinator of the state's wolf program.

The increase has been as high as 45 percent in some years since a single resident pack was detected in 1989, he said. Previously, the wolf had been considered all but extinct in Michigan — a situation the state once encouraged with a bounty system.

The survey was conducted over the winter, before pups are born — when the numbers are at their lowest point of the year. That means the total could have reached 600 or 700 by now, although many of the young won't survive and some adults will also die this year, Roell said.

"They don't live long. A 5-year-old wolf is an old wolf," he said. Territorial disputes, injuries and diseases such as distemper and parvovirus keep their lives short.

The DNR, helped by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, conducts its census by tracking and aerial observation of radio-collared wolves. About 40 wolves have been fitted with the collars so biologists can study their movements and survival rates.

Wolves have been protected under the federal Endangered Species Act since the 1970s. DNR officials are updating a management plan, anticipating the wolf's removal from the endangered list. At that point, wolves would become the state's responsibility.

The DNR conducted 10 public hearings around the state in May and will continue accepting public comments until Sept. 1.

Afterward, agency specialists will draft a paper with the latest scientific information about the wolves. It will be given to a committee with representatives of interest groups such as farmers, hunters and wildlife advocates, who will try to develop a set of guiding principles for the management policy.

Details will be written by DNR staffers. They will deal with such hot-button issues as how high the wolf population should be allowed to go.

A wise policy will seek a middle ground between eradication and no-holds-barred growth, said Brian Preston, regional representative for the National Wildlife Federation. Some hunting may be necessary to avoid exceeding the "social carrying capacity" — the population most people find acceptable, he said.

"Overall there's a very positive attitude toward wolves in Michigan," but the DNR should continue educating the public about the wolf's place in nature, Preston said.