Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wolf population continues to grow

Michigan’s wolf population continues to grow beyond established restoration goals.

Photo courtesy of USFWS

Hearing a wolf howl under a moonlit, star-filled sky is an experience one will never forget. It’s become rather common again in certain parts of the American West and is increasingly becoming common in the Upper Midwest. You don’t have to travel to Yellowstone to hear a wolf howl. Wolf populations are growing in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources released the results of their 2024 winter wolf population survey estimate and found a minimum of 762 wolves in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.). That number is a significant increase from the 2022 estimate of 631. An increase of 131 animals. Michigan’s wolf population continues to demonstrate a trend of statistical stability.

“This year’s survey findings are statistically consistent with our wolf population surveys for the past 14 years,” said Brian Roell, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist. “When a wild population reaches this stable point, it is typical to see slight variations from year to year, indicating that gray wolves may have reached their biological carrying capacity in the Upper Peninsula.”

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a special destination for those who seek natural beauty, solitude and fish and wildlife. With shoreline along Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, the U.P. is the heart of the Great Lakes. Destinations like Isle Royal National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Mackinac Island and Tahquamenon Falls State Park, provide travelers more scenic beauty in one area than perhaps any other in the Midwest.

Jim Harrison, my favorite author, spent a significant amount of time in the U.P. In a New York Times article from 2013, Harrison wrote, “If you take out your Rand McNally you’ll note that the Upper Peninsula is a long piece of land, over 300 miles, and thickish in places. It is about 30 percent of Michigan’s land mass but contains only 3 percent of its population. Growing up in northern Michigan, I was early on mystified by the Upper Peninsula even before I traveled there. In the 1960s I went up a number of times, and it did not cease to mystify me with its wildness.”

The Upper Peninsula is a special place, where if you do a little research to find out where wolves frequent and you listen into the night, you have a real chance of hearing wolves howl. But one may not have to go all the way to the U.P. to see or hear wolves in Michigan for long. The DNR continues to search for wolves in the Lower Peninsula. They haven’t surveyed for the presence of wolves in the northern Lower Peninsula since 2019, but a new survey is planned for early 2025.

“Research has suggested that there is suitable habitat for wolves in the northern Lower Peninsula,” Roell said. “However, this habitat is fragmented and the ability of wolves to travel the landscape among these habitat patches is uncertain. Suitable habitat becomes even more patchy in the more populated southern Lower Peninsula, which makes it unlikely that wolves would establish themselves there.”

A male wolf was accidently killed in the Lower Peninsula by a coyote hunter in January 2024 in Calhoun County. It’s hard for the DNR to know if there is an established population of wolves in the Lower Peninsula because they are at such low-density levels. The DNR is reliant on resident reports of wolves or wolf sign, such as tracks or scat, to verify suspected wolf presence.

Michigan is going to have a fight on their hands to control wolf populations just like states out west have. The federal Endangered Species Act is an amazing tool for restoring fish and wildlife populations to levels where they are considered no longer endangered. The whole idea is to use the rule to fix what’s wrong then remove the species from listing. Unfortunately, some fight to use the rule incorrectly as a way to keep species protected long after the species is recovered, making it very difficult to manage the species properly.

It’s like welfare in this country. Something we should all be proud of is living in a nation that takes care of people when they are down, by proving them the means to get back up. But it’s meant to be a restoration tool. Not a lifelong handout. We should be angered when taken advantage of by a system that refuses to stop providing welfare after the reasonable restoration means have been provided. It’s designed to last forever. Same with the Endangered Spices Act.

While wolves remain listed, they cannot be managed by the states. They can only be killed if they are a direct and immediate threat to human life. Wolves in Michigan exceed federal and state population goals. They should be removed from the Endangered Species Act list and returned to state control. The Michigan DNR continues to advocate for control of their wolf population. The federal government should abide.

See you down the trail…

Brandon Butler writes an outdoors column for The Republic. Send comments to [email protected]. For more Driftwood Outdoors, check out the podcast on www.driftwoodoutdoors.com or anywhere podcasts are streamed.