Image: Gray wolf
Courtesy Of Tony Saunders  /  AP file
This image provided by Tony Saunders shows Saunders and a wolf he shot south of Bondurant, Wyo., on April 6. Wyoming is revising its gray wolf management plan in hopes of placating concerns about providing enough protection for the animals, but environmentalists said changes are inadequate.
updated 12/14/2008 1:31:45 AM ET 2008-12-14T06:31:45

When Brian Roell got word from an aerial surveillance crew that the gray wolf's radio collar was indicating no movement, he knew what it probably meant.

A few hours later, the wolf program coordinator for Michigan's Department of Natural Resources was trudging through a swampy backwoods near this township in the Upper Peninsula with another wildlife biologist and a DNR conservation officer. Guided by a hand-held antenna that picked up the radio collar's rapid beeps, the searchers made their way into a thick black cedar stand. There, in a slight depression, lay the dead wolf on its back, legs jutting skyward.

The 6-year-old male, his neck soaked with blood, appeared to have been dragged to this spot. The wound on the right side of his chest left no doubt about the cause of death: a bullet from a small-caliber rifle.

The wolf was among more than three dozen believed to have been deliberately and illegally killed in Michigan's Upper Peninsula within the past five years, according to DNR data obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act. Officials in other north central and Rocky Mountain states report scores of wolf shootings despite legal protection for the animal driven to near extinction in many areas.

Some residents of the sprawling, rural Upper Peninsula deeply resent the wolf's presence. Among them are hunters who believe the wily predators are decimating the whitetail deer herd and farmers who have lost livestock to wolf raids.

"They're born killers," said Al Clemens, a hunter from Ironwood who has lobbied state legislators to establish wolf hunting and trapping seasons. "... People are just fed up."

Yes, wolves eat deer, but not enough to put a serious dent in the total, Roell said.

"Wolves are an easy scapegoat," he added.

Wolf catch phrase
The wolf isn't universally despised in the region. The DNR says a 2005 survey indicated most residents were willing to peacefully coexist. In fact, tips from citizens have been instrumental in nabbing poachers.

Still, most cases go unsolved, and many illegal kills undoubtedly never come to official attention. "Yoopers," as Upper Peninsula residents call themselves, even have a catch phrase for dispatching a wolf and hiding the evidence: "Shoot, shovel and shut up."

But now and then investigators catch a break.

As Roell and biologist Dean Beyer examined the Sagola Township wolf's carcass, officer Chris Holmes spotted footprints beside a nearby stream. Not far away, he found fresh tire tracks from a sport utility vehicle.

The men set off, following the tracks.

Numbers rising
Wolves once ranged widely across much of North America.

But predator control programs wiped them out in most of the lower 48 states. They had disappeared from Michigan's Lower Peninsula by the early 20th century and were all but gone from the Upper Peninsula by 1960, when a state bounty program was repealed.

But in 1989, the tracks of a wolf pair were found not far from where the Sagola Township male would be shot in 2006. The couple produced a litter of pups, touching off a surprisingly rapid comeback boosted by migrants from neighboring Wisconsin. The latest census, taken last winter, estimated the U.P. population at 520.

Meanwhile, numbers also were rising in Minnesota — which now has nearly 3,000 wolves — and Wisconsin, with about 540.

So prolific had they become that the U.S. Department of Interior last year removed the upper Great Lakes population from the federal endangered species list. Many environmentalists supported the move.

"A spectacular success story," said Marvin Roberson, a Michigan-based Sierra Club forest ecologist.

Fears of poaching
But the Humane Society and other animal rights groups, believing wolves still vulnerable, filed suit. A federal judge in September restored the wolves to the list, saying the government had not followed the Endangered Species Act.

The ruling means for now, state officials in Michigan and Wisconsin no longer can kill wolves that repeatedly prey on livestock or pets — a crucial provision in management plans the states had crafted. The states are seeking permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue doing so. (Minnesota can use lethal control because its population is listed only as "threatened," not "endangered.")

Without that option, some fear public support for wolves will decline — and poaching will rise as frustrated farmers and hunters take matters into their own hands.

"It's going to make some criminals out of honest people," said John Talsma, a retired veterinarian.

Living with wolves
Ben Bartlett, member of a DNR advisory panel on wolf management, said farmers are learning to live with wolves — as long as they're compensated for lost livestock and authorities respond promptly to reports of repeated predation.

"People are happy to let the DNR sit out there and trap and shoot so they can go about their work," Bartlett said. He's raised cattle and sheep for 30 years with no wolf raids, although coyotes have been a problem.

According to Michigan DNR data obtained by the AP, nearly 200 wolf carcasses have been recovered in the Upper Peninsula within the past five years. Of those, 39 were referred to investigators as likely poaching cases.

The population has continued rising about 10 percent annually, though this year's increase was half that. That could be just a blip or an indication the peninsula is running out of room for new packs, but biologists don't believe poaching is causing the slowdown.

At least 28 wolves were killed illegally in Wisconsin in 2006-07, said Adrian Wydeven, wolf coordinator for that state's DNR. In Minnesota, state wildlife biologist Dan Stark said poaching happens "to some extent" but less frequently than in the Northern Rockies, home to about 1,500 wolves.

About 10 percent of Rockies wolves are killed illegally every year, said Ed Bangs, recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, Mont.

"Most people try to follow the law even if they disagree with it," Bangs said. "But there's also a knucklehead element in the hunting society."

Tracking a wolf killer
Roell and Beyer lugged the 78-pound wolf's body through waist-high swamp grass on the crude logging road. They spotted a camouflage-style glove on the ground and took it along as possible evidence.

Before long, the tire tracks entered a privately owned parcel where the investigators noticed two hunting blinds on stilts. Farther on, they found a small cabin. Parked nearby was a Chevrolet Blazer with tires matching the tracks on the road.

After determining who owned the backwoods camp, Holmes confronted the owner's son, 28-year-old William Jason Morgan of Iron Mountain.

Faced with evidence — including the glove, which matched another the investigators saw on the kitchen table — Morgan admitted shooting the wolf from a deer blind. He'd thought it was a coyote, he explained. But after seeing the radio collar, he realized he had killed a wolf and hid the animal in the swamp.

The coyote defense again. Holmes and Roell had heard it before. It popped up repeatedly in a stack of poaching incident reports obtained by the AP through FOIA requests.

In 2004, a trapper killed what he thought was a coyote near the tip of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. It turned out to be the only wolf seen in Lower Michigan in modern times — one that apparently had traversed a 5-mile-long ice bridge from the Upper Peninsula near the spot where Lakes Michigan and Huron converge.

Roell said experienced hunters and trappers should know better than to mistake coyotes, up to 18 inches high and weighing 25-40 pounds, with wolves, which are twice as large. Coyotes make clipped yapping sounds, in contrast to drawn-out wolf howls.

Morgan was booked on a charge of violating Michigan's endangered species law.

Daisy melts into darkness
The sun hadn't yet peeked over the eastern horizon one morning last May when Sandy Augustine and Dan Haltug were jolted awake by howling outside their farmhouse north of Bruce Crossing.

Their two dogs heard it, too. When Augustine opened the front door, they burst outside, barking furiously.

Suddenly, a squeal.

A wolf grabbed her poodle, Daisy, and melted into the darkness. "Just a couple of seconds and it was gone," Augustine said. She and Haltug never saw Daisy again.

Then, in early September, they awoke to a grisly scene: The yard was littered with feathers and carcasses of 38 geese and 12 ducks. Most were uneaten, which seemed odd until a DNR officer explained that "surplus killing" is common when wolves assault poultry farms — particularly if adults are teaching pups to hunt.

"They get while the getting's good," returning later to continue dining, Roell said. Sure enough, the next morning Augustine shot video footage of four wolves devouring a goose.

Frustrations and slogans
Such incidents help explain the anger many feel toward the predators — and toward laws and interest groups they believe tie their hands.

"People are getting frustrated," said John Hongisto, a member of the U.P. Sportsmen's Alliance. "I will not kill a wolf myself, but if I hear about it I wouldn't turn somebody in. I understand where they're coming from."

If there's a poster child for the peninsula's wolf critics, it would be 63-year-old farmer John Koski, whose pickup has a bumper sticker reading, "Michigan Wolves — Smoke a Pack a Day."

He's unsure how many cattle he has lost over the past decade. But it's happened so much that government sharpshooters, concealed in blinds and wearing night-vision goggles, have killed nearly two dozen wolves on his 925-acre spread near Matchwood.

Koski carries photos of wolves — loping across his pasture, eating dead cows, lying dead after being shot — and of a gutted white calf. He keeps decomposing remains of another victim — brown, matted hair, bleached bones, a severed head — a cow killed in July.

"It's not right," Koski said with a sigh, strolling amid his mooing herd recently.

Wolves are survivors
While some residents want all U.P. wolves eradicated, other critics such as Hongisto favor limiting the population with regular hunting and trapping seasons.

Pro-wolf groups oppose that, although some accept the idea of killing wolves that habitually prey on domestic animals. But they contend the problems caused by wolves are exaggerated.

"Most people in the U.P. have never seen a wolf, never heard a wolf, never had any bad experience with a wolf," the Sierra Club's Roberson said.

And many in the peninsula are delighted with the wolf's return.

"They're a natural and important part of the ecosystem," said Dean Premo, a fifth-generation resident.

Wolves are known to prowl the forests and pastures near Mavis Farr's rural home.

"I'm proud to live in a place that's wild enough to still maintain a wolf population," Farr said.

Morgan, the Sagola Township shooter, pleaded guilty in April 2007 and was fined $2,385. He lost his hunting privileges through 2010 and was placed on probation for six months.

The AP could not reach him for comment. A former neighbor in Iron Mountain said he'd left the area. His phone had been disconnected.

Officers are investigating seven wolf shootings this year.

But wolves are survivors. Their mortality rate is high, but so is their birth rate.

Most importantly, the prevailing attitude — and official policy — toward wolves is radically different from the days of bounties.

"There's been a tremendous cultural shift," Beyer said. "Without that persecution, I think the wolf is pretty secure."

More Gray wolves | Endangered listings 

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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