Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Michigan legislators offer views on hunting bills, signed into law today; NRC may establish wolf hunting season despite public opposition

By Michele Bourdieu

The Anderson House Office Building in Lansing, seen from the park in front of the Capitol. Keweenaw Now interviewed our 110th District Rep. Scott Dianda in his office on the 14th floor (near the flag at the top of the building) on May 1, 2013. (Photos by Keweenaw Now unless otherwise indicated.)

LANSING -- [Editor's Note: A week ago, on Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013, the Michigan House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee heard more than four hours of testimonies on SB 288 -- the bill that gives the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) the responsibility to establish managed open season hunts for wild game (including wolves) and authority to regulate the taking of fish. It exempts the taking of mourning doves, pets and livestock. The Legislature maintains its ability to both add and remove species on the list. Although Keweenaw Now was unable to attend that meeting, we did have an opportunity the following day (May 1) to interview two representatives who are members of the committee -- 110th District Rep. Scott Dianda (D-Calumet) and 50th District Rep. Charles Smiley (D-Burton), vice-chair of the committee -- both of whom took time from their busy schedules to answer our questions on this controversial legislation. We tried to contact Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R-Columbus Township), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, for an appointment; but she did not answer messages.]

110th District Rep. Scott Dianda's aides Elise Matz, left, and Danielle Stein, walk in front of the State Capitol in Lansing on a sunny May 1, 2013. Matz and Stein helped Keweenaw Now secure interviews with Rep. Dianda and Rep. Charles Smiley during our brief visit to Lansing.

During the House Natural Resources Committee meeting on Apr. 30, 2013, a majority of public testimonials opposed SB 288, the bill introduced by Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) that would give the Michigan Natural Resources Commission (NRC) authority to establish a hunting season for game, including wolves. Nevertheless, that committee voted 8 to 0 in favor of the bill.

Since the interviews reported here, SB 288 was approved by both the Michigan Senate and the House and, just today, May 8, was signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder. The Governor also signed SB 289, also introduced by Casperson, which guarantees the legal right to hunt and fish.

SB 288 and SB 289 are now Public Acts 21 and 22 of 2013.

"It has been an emotional issue for everybody," 110th District Rep. Scott Dianda, a member of the committee, told Keweenaw Now during an interview in his Lansing office on May 1, 2013.

In his office in Lansing, Rep. Scott Dianda (D-Calumet) speaks with Keweenaw Now on May 1, 2013, about his vote for SB 288 and 289 in the Natural Resources Committee meeting on Apr. 30.

Dianda said the committee listened to public testimonials, most of them opposed to SB 288, for at least four hours. The meeting began at noon in the Anderson House Office Building, but the representatives had to suspend the meeting after about an hour and a half to report to their regular House floor session in the Capitol across the street. Afterwards they returned for several more hours of testimonials, followed by their vote, in the packed committee room.

"We got a chance to listen to everyone who came to the committee," Dianda said. "It was an all-day affair."

However, the room reportedly did not hold everyone who wanted to speak. Those who were not admitted (including Keweenaw Now guest photographer Marshall Anderson) were invited to watch a televised broadcast of the meeting in the "overflow" room.

In the "overflow" room, a monitor shows Michigan House Natural Resources Committee members readying for a vote on SB 288 on Apr. 30, 2013. (Photo by Marshall Anderson for Keweenaw Now)

Asked why he voted for the bill since most people there were against it, Dianda said no one from his district was present to speak against the bill and most of those who opposed it were from areas outside the Upper Peninsula. He said he felt they didn't understand the situation of U.P. residents who claim to have a wolf problem in their backyard. Hunting groups from the U.P. did come to testify in favor of the bill.

On the other hand, the committee received 63 pages of emails -- most dated April 29 or the morning of April 30 -- all asking the committee to vote against SB 288.*

Public comments oppose SB 288

Here are just a few excerpts from the emails, three of them sent by Upper Peninsula residents:

Adam Robarge of Marquette, who helped collect signatures for a petition for referendum on the 2012 PA 520 wolf hunt law, and who recently made two trips to Lansing and spoke to legislators about SB 288, writes on Apr. 29, 2013, "There is much we still do not understand in regard to the gray wolf and its role in Michigan, economically and biologically. I supported the Keep Michigan Wolves Protected campaign because it gave us time. I oppose SB 288 as it is written because the bill gives us neither time nor science."

Jacqueline and James Winkowski of Gwinn write, "Though the waters have been muddied by our legislators, as you know, Senate Bill 288 is about rendering ineffective the signatures of about 250,000 registered voters who signed petitions to place the question of the gray wolf as a game animal on the ballot .... SB 288 will allow only the legislature and the politically appointed NRC to decide which species (including, of course, the wolf) are hunted, with no chance for voters to appeal. This is a major grab of power away from the people of Michigan. To introduce this Bill was punitive and wrong."

Catherine Parker of Marquette offers these comments: "What's really troubling me is that our elected representatives are saying that voters are not equipped to make a decision on the wolf hunt, or on wildlife management issues in general, when in fact there are many highly specialized scientists and countless citizens who have devoted much time to studying these issues."

An example of a knowledgeable scientist who sent a letter to the committee is Barbara J. Barton of Lansing, an endangered species biologist, who objects to the NRC being given the authority to designate game species in Michigan, to the title of the bill -- "Scientific Wildlife Management" -- and to the exclusion of the Tribes in the decision making process.

Barton notes that only one NRC member has "any experience even remotely related to wildlife management (the director of a nature center)." She also refers to the Inland Consent Decree of 2007, which provides for consultation between the State of Michigan and the five Tribes under the 1836 Treaty.

Barton quotes from this Decree, Part 23.4: "The State and the Tribes shall notify each other at least annually of proposed regulatory changes before they take effect and seek to resolve any concerns arising from such changes before implementing them."**

It is not clear at this time whether the Natural Resources Committee members had a chance to read these email messages before their vote on Apr. 30. Moreover, the fact that many of the citizens who sent them did not include their place of residence makes it difficult to know how many of the emails were from Upper Peninsula residents.

Concerning his own vote in favor of SB 288, Dianda said, "I just felt it was important for our people in our area -- that they felt safe."

Dianda admitted that the discussion on SB 288 was added to the meeting agenda at the last minute, making it difficult for people to travel from the U.P. in time to testify.

"That was disappointing to me, too," he said.

110th District Rep. Scott Dianda takes time for a photo in his office with his aides, from left, Danielle Stein, Elise Matz and Curtis Audette.             .

Dianda noted he was opposed to the earlier version of the bill that included appropriations of $1 million, which would have made it impossible to petition for a referendum after the bill becomes a law. His objection appeared to be based on the fact that Democrats are trying to secure more funding for education and other needs at this time.

He said he also voted in favor of SB 289, the bill giving Michigan residents the right to hunt, trap and fish. Dianda explained he himself is a sportsman who has hunted for small game such as rabbits and deer but has never trapped.

"I like the idea that we've got legislation that gives the people the right to hunt and fish," he said. "It's very important to me."

Dianda opposes anti-biodiversity bill, SB 78

Dianda noted he is opposed to SB 78, the anti-biodiversity bill, also proposed by State Sen. Tom Casperson.

Dianda said he believes that the NRC should work with state biologists and that legislators should have input with the DNR on wolf management.

"I want to make sure that we're watching the DNR -- to make sure that in our district they do it right and humanely and to make sure that they (hunters) take only the (wolves) in the towns," Dianda added.

He said he is suggesting a reporting system so that if a wolf attacks a pet the County Sheriff should be notified immediately. After the recent incident of a wolf attack on a dog in the Red Ridge area of Atlantic Mine, Houghton County Sheriff Brian McLean was not notified until three days later, Dianda noted.

"I just feel for public safety that should be reported right away so people can be warned to bring their pets inside," he said. "I really feel that the DNR has to have direction from the elected representatives. It's important not only for this issue but also the impact on policy for other issues in the U.P."

DNR official, Isle Royale wolf experts say public safety not an issue 

However, DNR Conservation Officer Dennis Gast, who responded immediately to the call about the wolf attack on that dog, said it is not a public safety issue.

"It's a good idea to let the Sheriff know, but there's not a danger to the public," Gast told Keweenaw Now in an interview today. "Wolves are a minimal if non-existent danger to people. They will sometimes attack dogs and livestock."

Wolves are competitive with dogs, he explained, just as they are with other wolves who trespass on their territory. Gast said he speculated these wolves (at least four were involved in the attack) came very close to the dog owner's house, possible about 100 yards, and were probably more aggressive because they had pups in this season.

"In North America wolf attacks on people are extremely rare," Gast noted. "Wolves don't attack dogs very often. It's relatively rare. There are more dogs in Houghton County than there are wolves in the U.P."

Gast said he was called at the DNR office the day the attack happened and he went there very shortly after the call.

"It had happened earlier that morning," he noted. "I verified it was by a wolf and later a wildlife technician (Brad Johnson from the Baraga DNR office) went out there and also corroborated on that."

While wolves are not a danger to people, an attack on a dog that was that close to the house is unacceptable, Gast added, noting the dog owner was not at fault. His dog apparently sensed the wolves and went to investigate, but Gast guessed the wolves' den area was close to the house.

In an Apr. 2, 2013, memo from the DNR to the NRC, the public safety issue is mentioned as one purpose for hunting wolves. However, two internationally known wolf experts have questioned whether public safety is a real threat.

In a May 1, 2013, statement submitted as written testimony against a public wolf harvest -- for the NRC hearings related to wolf hunting in Michigan -- Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study Co-Directors Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, referring to the DNR memo, say this about the public safety issue:

"One problem is that many people's perception of a threat is at gross odds with the reality of a threat. The memo fails to recognize the best-available science, which is abundantly clear: genuine threats to human safety by wolves are exceedingly rare. Recognizing and dealing with public perceptions about human safety is critically important. However, treating perception as reality, when the best-available science indicates otherwise, is poor wildlife management and counter productive to solving the problem."

Peterson and Vucetich also note why a wolf hunting season does not guarantee solving the problem: "Protecting human safety cannot wait until the upcoming hunting season, with the subsequent hope that some hunter has the good fortune to kill the offending wolf," they note.***

Rep. Charles Smiley passes on Committee vote, citing lack of time

Following the interview with Dianda, Keweenaw Now was able to meet briefly with 50th District Rep. Charles Smiley (D-Burton), vice-chair of the Natural Resources Committee, who passed on the Apr. 30 committee vote (the only member of the committee who did not vote yes on SB 288 and SB 289 in committee, though he later voted for them in the May 2 session on the House floor).

Michigan 50th District Rep. Charles Smiley (D-Burton), vice-chair of the Natural Resources Committee, took time before the House session in the Capitol on May 1, 2013, to speak with Keweenaw Now on why he passed on the Apr. 30 committee vote on SB 288 and SB 289.

"They scheduled to have the committee meeting on the bills (SB 288 and 289) and then vote on them the same day, and I felt it wasn't giving us enough time to listen to all the testimony and, basically, get all the facts and talk about the bills -- what they really are," Smiley told Keweenaw Now. "I don't feel that it's good practice for us to have testimony and then report it out the same day."

Smiley added he took a pass on both SB 288 and SB 289 because of the lack of time to read and understand the bills. Like Dianda, he confirmed most of the testimonies were in opposition to SB 288.

"And I'm really torn on this," he said. "I'm an avid hunter. I understand how important it is that we have a balance -- in any animal."

Smiley said he would have liked to introduce a compromise but he wasn't sure "how many wolves are too many" or what hunting methods would be used.

"When I hunt I don't trap," he noted.

Smiley said when he was mayor of the city of Burton, near Flint, he was used to the fact that after passing city ordinances they could go back and tweak them. He believed that could be done with these bills. As an example, he mentioned the limitations put on hunting licenses for elk and bear.

"I'm assuming they're going to do the same with this (wolf hunt)," he said. "It's going to be very selective and very restrictive."

Smiley said he had never worked with the NRC but he believes the legislature should have input in their decisions.

To a question on whether PA 520 and the petition for a referendum on it would be thrown out if SB 288 becomes law, Smiley indicated it would.

"That's tragic," he said. "We fought hard to get the appropriations out of it (SB 288)."

The appropriations would have disallowed any referendum on the law. Smiley said he realized people may not want to start over, but at least the voters have the right to petition for a referendum should they wish to do it again. He would not vote for it if appropriations had been left in -- or if they tried to put them back in, he explained.

"But I'm willing to sit down and work with everyone in trying to come up with some sort of compromise or to make things better as we work through this," Smiley added.

Asked about SB 78, the anti-biodiversity bill, Smiley said he would not support it.

"There's just certain things we have to protect, and I know that Republicans are not real good at protecting some of our environments," he said. "There's no way I'm going to support that bill in its present condition."

As of today, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters reports that SB 78 is now on hold.

Both Dianda and Smiley voted in favor of SB 288 and SB 289 in the May 2, 2013, House session vote.

Rep. Sarah Roberts: House ignored her proposed amendments

One representative who voted against both bills, 18th District Rep. Sarah Roberts (D-St. Clair Shores), sent a letter to one of her constituents, including these statements:

"Thank you for kind words regarding my efforts to oppose Senate Bill 288. I regret that many of my colleagues did not agree with me and voted to prevent our citizens from exercising their constitutional right to petition their government with a referendum.

"As you know, on Thursday May 2nd, I voted no on SB 288. Unfortunately I was in the minority, as the bill passed the House by a vote of 72 to 38. The bill will now go the Governor for his signature.

I offered amendments that would have let the citizens decide these issues and let the vote on wolf hunting take place. However the majority party in the House would not even let the members of the House of Representatives vote on my amendments. In fact, my debate on these amendments was cut off by House republicans."

The NRC met today, May 8, in Roscommon, Mich., to receive information in preparation for a Thursday, May 9, vote of the full commission on a wolf harvest. Today, the committee was to hear presentations from the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of natural resources and to consider written testimony from outside experts.

Notes:

* Click here to read the emails to the House Natural Resources Committee. All are opposed to SB 288.

** Native Americans consider the wolf their brother and the Ojibwa are culturally opposed to hunting wolves. The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, in their Wolf Management Plan approved January 10, 2013, states the following: "In the event that legislation is enacted for a wolf hunt, KBIC will designate the Home Territory, approximately 3.9 million acres within the 1842 Treaty area, as Wolf Sanctuary where sport hunting and/or trapping will not be allowed (See Appendix 2 for Home Territory Map). In addition, KBIC will not provide Tribal wolf hunting permits to community members. These measures will help to protect wolves and maintain a strong culturally based stance against the killing of wolves. KBIC Natural Resource Department will also participate in and maintain close communication with those involved in wolf monitoring and control of human-wolf conflicts. As funding allows, we intend to increase monitoring of wolves on and near the Reservation preferably with tracking of radio-collared wolves to keep tabs on any changing status of wolf packs."  Click here to read the KBIC Wolf Management Plan.

*** Click here to read the rest of this statement by wolf experts Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich. This statement is also posted in pdf format on The Wildlife News Web site. Thanks to Nancy Warren of Wolfwatchers.org and Kristi Lloyd of Wolves of the Rockies for sharing these links. See also this article on Wolfwatchers.org: "John Vucetich’s Presentation 'Hunting Wolves.'"

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