TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – John Koski is itching to pick up his rifle after losing dozens of cows to hungry wolves on his farm in Michigan's Upper Peninsula — and it appears he'll soon get his chance.
A legal shield that has protected gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region for nearly four decades will disappear Friday when the animal leaves the federal endangered species list. With that milestone, a primal struggle that was waged in this rugged backcountry for more than a century will resume, although in a more restrained fashion.
"It's about time," said Koski, 67, one of many ranchers eager to begin shooting wolves that prey on livestock. Likewise, hunters are pushing for the chance to stalk a foe legendary for its cunning that has long been off-limits.
"There has to be a hunt. We're just saturated with wolves here," said Al Clemens, who already pursues coyotes in the Upper Peninsula backwoods. But opponents of killing wolves for sport promise a stiff fight before state agencies.
The removal of federal protections in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, which follows the same action last year in the Northern Rockies, opens a new chapter in a long, violent battle between stockmen and wolves — a colorful part of the heartland's history.
Unlike native Indians who revered wolves as spiritual beings, white settlers despised them as bloodthirsty vermin and shot, poisoned and trapped them to near extinction by the 1930s. In 1974, the species was declared endangered and killing wolves became a crime.
Now, as the federal government bows out, states face the challenge of protecting enough of the approximately 4,400 wolves that have been painstakingly brought back here while accommodating enthusiastic hunters and the ranchers who are tired of collecting bloody carcasses left by marauding wolf packs.
"We want to show that we're capable of managing a healthy wolf population," said biologist Brian Roell of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Striking the balance won't be easy. But the wolves could make the ranchers' best efforts difficult anyway.
Miles Kuschel seldom sees the wolves that prey on cattle at his family's 3,000-acre Rocking K Ranch near Sebeka in northern Minnesota. But he knows they're out there, lurking in nearby forests by day and prowling his pastures by night.
On a recent tour, a thin layer of snow had preserved two sets of wolf tracks running not quite single-file across a field. Kuschel hears the howling at night. He believes he lost six calves to wolves in 2011, but doubts he'll get many chances to take a shot.
"They've survived for centuries because they're an elusive and intelligent animal," he said.
Dale Lueck, who lives about 65 miles east near Aitkin, Minn., said most ranchers are too busy to spend nights on wolf patrol. "Who can afford night vision equipment?" he added with a laugh.
After federal protections are lifted, Michigan and Wisconsin will allow people to kill wolves preying on livestock or pets. Farmers with a history of attacks can obtain permits to shoot wolves anywhere on their property. Minnesota will have similar policies, depending on where the ranchers live.
Cheri Klussendorf, who raises cattle in north-central Wisconsin, said electric fencing around her 246 acres was no match for the wolf pack that devoured a 1,400-pound cow in November and a number of calves last spring. She says she doesn't want to erase wolves from the landscape.
"If I could just keep them away from my cows, they're no problem," Klussendorf said.
In Michigan's eastern Upper Peninsula, Don Clark said he'll apply for shoot-on-sight permits but has no illusions he'll be able to keep his 2,700 acres wolf-free. He's begun surrounding his land with 6-foot-high, woven-wire fencing, which will take up to five years. In the meantime, he hopes the state will authorize hunting and trapping that would reduce the U.P. wolf population, estimated at 687. None of the Great Lakes states have taken that step, although Minnesota — which has nearly 3,000 wolves, more than any state except Alaska — is considering a hunt this fall in which 400 wolves could be killed.
Hunters have shot or trapped nearly as many in Idaho and Montana since Northern Rockies wolves were dropped from the endangered list last year.
Clemens, of Ironwood in the western U.P., has obtained 1,200 signatures on a pro-hunting petition. The veteran coyote hunter has a white camouflage outfit perfect for stalking wolves through the snow. He's upgraded from bullets suitable for coyotes to heavier types that would bring down 80- to 90-pound wolves. "I'm ready to go," he said.
Wolf advocates who accept the idea of farmers protecting livestock recoil at talk of hunting and trapping, which they fear will slash wolf numbers drastically.
"It's very sad for me to know that so many wolves will be killed under state management," said Collette Adkins Giese, a Minnesota-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Nancy Warren, an activist who lives in the western U.P., said Great Lakes wolves remain vulnerable to disease and starvation. Mortality rates are high, especially for pups. -
"If wolves are living in the forests, raising their pups and not causing any problems, I see no reason why they can't be left alone," Warren said.
Karnowski reported from Sebeka, Minn.