Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Interview: Diane Miller of Houghton County explains why she has collected signatures for two anti-wolf-hunt petition drives

By Katie Alvord*

Wolf photo courtesy Reprinted with permission.

HOUGHTON -- For more than a year now, Houghton County resident Diane Miller has collected signatures to help protect Michigan wolves from being hunted. As one of many citizen volunteers working with the Humane Society offshoot Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, Diane has gathered more than 900 signatures for two anti-wolf-hunt petition drives. The second of these faces an early March deadline.

Diane stands firmly on one side of a debate over the fate of wolves -- a debate that seems only to have intensified as Michigan held its first wolf-hunting season in four decades, from Nov. 15 to Dec. 31, 2013. In the conversation below, she shares stories and perspectives about working on this issue and living with wolves in the U.P.; and she explains to this writer why she opposes the wolf hunt.

K (Katie Alvord): You’ve been collecting signatures on the wolf hunt issue for months, and you’re still at it. Right now you’re working on the petition drive to repeal Public Act 21, which has given final say over the hunt to Michigan’s Natural Resources Commission.

D (Diane Miller): Yes. That commission is basically a group of business people. Only one of them has a background related to wildlife or wilderness or biology. (Update: please see Editor's Note below.)

K: As I understand things, state lawmakers enacted P.A. 21 after Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, with their first petition, succeeded in getting an anti-wolf-hunt referendum on the 2014 ballot. So when P.A. 21 made that referendum moot, this second petition drive was mounted with the goal of repealing that law and giving the wolf hunt decision back to the voters.

D: Yes. We need to get petitions into the mail by March 5, or dropped off at collection centers by March 9. If we get enough signatures, there will be two questions on the ballot. The first one will be: Shall we hunt wolves as a game species? The second is: Do we want the seven-member commission to determine game species in Michigan? We want people to vote "No" in both cases, to end wolf hunting in Michigan.**

During First Friday events in Calumet on Sept. 6, 2013, Diane Miller, left, collects signatures on the petition for a referendum on P.A. 21 -- the second petition drive to allow Michigan voters to decide whether a wolf should be a game species. Pictured with Diane on Fifth Street in Calumet are, from left, Nancy Sprague, Bill Sewell and Oren Tikkanen.  (Keweenaw Now file photo)

K: While working on these petition drives, what have you done?

D: I ask people for their signatures. I ask my friends. I hang out in bars I wouldn’t normally go to. I take petitions with me pretty much everywhere I go. I hang out at highway rest areas on weekends sometimes and ask travelers as they come through to sign. I’ve hung out in parking lots of wilderness areas and campgrounds.

K: So how much time would you say you put in?

D: I have never calculated that. It might be hundreds of hours.

K: What do you tell potential petition signers?

D: For the first initiative, I just asked if they would like to sign a petition that would help get a referendum on the Fall 2014 ballot to repeal the wolf hunt. With this second petition drive, the issue is more about who gets to decide what’s hunted. There is a lot more talking that has to happen because this second issue is more complex.

On the face of it, it could sound like a good idea that there would be a commission of people to determine the game species. That sounds reasonable. However, when we realize that the people in question are not even remotely biologists -- they are business people appointed by the governor -- and that their decision then will trump everything else, including the democratic process, that’s not so reasonable.

K: What motivates you to do this?

D: Sometimes people think that because I’m a woman I like wolves because they’re pretty. They are pretty, but that is not even close enough to motivate me to take action.

I do it because I don’t want to live in a world where we want to handle problems the way we seem to be handling this one. It seems to me that people who are pushing for a wolf hunt -- our leaders, our elected officials -- don’t understand, or are maybe ignoring -- that one species is part of a bigger picture, that it might not make sense to address a conflict by declaring a season on our fellow creatures.

K: When you talk to potential signers, what responses do you get?

D: It’s very, very interesting. First of all, the people who want to sign the petition really, really, really want to sign the petition. They are very appreciative. Most of them can hardly believe that this is going on! They thank me, they tell their friends, and sometimes their friends will come looking to sign. So we do have a group of people like that.

We still have some people who didn’t even know that we had a wolf hunt, so they want to learn about that. And they’re quite shocked to find out that we would actually do such a thing.

And then there’s a group of people who seem offended that I would ask them to sign the petition. I’ve run into a variety of aggressive responses. More than once, grown men have -- upon finding out what I’m doing -- performed acts like running around the parking lot waving their arms and shouting, "Kill the wolves! Kill all the wolves!" They will taunt me, to try to intimidate me, I guess.

At the Parade of Nations last September, Diane Miller, center, is pictured at the Keep Michigan Wolves Protected booth along with two other petition gatherers -- Jackie Winkowski, left, Wolfwatcher Great Lakes Representative, and Leah Vucetich of Hancock. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

I encountered a lot of thinking that made no rational sense. Here’s just one example: One time I was downstate at a highway rest stop, and I approached an older man to ask if he wanted to sign. He said, "No way! I have them at my cabin in the U.P. and they’re scary. If you lived around wolves, you wouldn’t be thinking we should save them." Then I told him, "But I do live near wolves, up in the U.P. I have wolves near my property." So here’s where he took that: he said, "Oh, you think you can come down here and tell us what to do?" Not only was he saying that we should kill whatever scares us, but he also did not seem to see anything wrong with his logic, which seems to be that if you’re from the U.P. and you promote the wolf hunt, your U.P. connections increase your credibility. If you’re from the U.P. and are against the wolf hunt, drawing on your U.P. experience makes you an oppressor.

I’ve encountered people who were afraid that wolves would come into their houses and get them. Of course, it’s not the kind of thing that wolves are known to do. These people have their minds made up, and they’re made up out of fear.

K: The kind of interactions you’ve described paint a picture of how divisive this issue can be, and how emotional. How do we get past that, to meaningful dialog?

D: That’s a good question. Much of what we are talking about seems based in fear and hate. And a person who is making a decision based on fear and hate is not usually open to other perspectives. But change is not impossible. I’m thinking of Aldo Leopold, who, as a hunter, routinely shot wolves under the misguided idea that it would increase the deer herd. He later wrote about watching the "fierce green fire" die from the wolf’s eyes. He understood that he had shot the wolf because he was "full of trigger itch" and that nature required a balance that he didn’t have the right to interfere with.

Restoring the democratic process -- and encouraging voters to educate themselves -- and nurturing a culture of understanding of our appropriate place in an ecosystem is how I believe we can reduce conflict.

K: What kind of encounters have you had with wolves?

D: I’ve only had two in the wild. And they were both really lovely. Once I was looking for berries way back in the woods on a two-track road in Marquette County. As I rounded a bend I surprised a wolf about six feet away. The wolf looked at me, did a little dance, and slid away. The second time, I was in Iron County looking for mushrooms in the woods when I came across two wolves who were eating something. They looked up at me and I felt like I should go away. So I did.

K: They didn’t make any movement toward you or anything?

D: None whatsoever. They just looked at me and I had the feeling they were curious about me, but they were taking care of their own business. I just turned around and left. I knew they would not hurt me. Every source I have encountered agrees that no healthy wolf has ever even once been known to hurt a human being in Michigan. In spite of that, there are a lot of inaccurate stories about wolf threats.

K: I read about those. Just before the 2013 wolf season opened the news reported that State Senator Tom Casperson had used an incorrect story in his 2011 resolution calling for removal of wolves from the Endangered Species list. That resolution included a statement about wolves appearing multiple times in the back yard of a daycare center when children were outside playing. In reality, one wolf was sighted on a lawn, one time, when no children were present, and the wolf ran away when the woman who saw it screamed.

D: Yes. Unfortunately, now it is a matter of history that lawmakers have cast their votes based on that lie. I really don’t want my world to be one in which decisions are made this way -- on bad information and based on fear.

K: The wolf hunt took place in three U.P. zones where the DNR had registered conflicts with or complaints about wolves and they’ve said that the wolf hunt’s primary goal was to target wolf packs with a history of conflict. They have also stated that the 2013 wolf season was successful in that way. But Nancy Warren of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition has said that most wolves killed during the hunt were not threats, including some radio-collared research animals, wolves killed near Porcupine Mountains State Park, and one killed in the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness. What’s your take on all that?

D: I heard a story told by a hunter who was hunting deer this past year. He encountered some wolf hunters who were shooting deer and then leaving the deer’s bodies in a pile in hopes of baiting, attracting a wolf so they could shoot it. What we have here is not a group of hunters scouting just the area around human-wolf interaction.

I am grateful to Nancy because of the work that she’s done in several instances with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in exposing this. If the DNR says that most of the wolves were killed near the area of human-wolf conflict, and then we find out that’s not true, their credibility is gone; we need to know the truth about our public agencies.

Another part of this picture includes the livestock depredations, and that’s also where the work that Nancy did is so important. It was because of losses of livestock and pets that ostensibly this wolf hunt was supposed to happen. Through FOIA though, Nancy found out that most of the depredations happened on one farm, and they were the result of poor farming practices. Leaving decaying carcasses out in the field is a sure way to get some wolves to visit your property. That farmer -- as well as other farmers -- was helped by the state. To discourage wolves, he was given fencing, which disappeared. If I remember correctly, Nancy’s work revealed that the DNR spent nearly $33,000 on that farm. He was also given three donkeys, which are good at guarding farm animals. Two died and one was removed from the farm as it was suffering from neglect.

Upper Peninsula wolf photographed during Michigan's 2013 wolf hunt (November 2013). (Photo courtesy Nancy Warren, National Wolfwatcher Coalition)

K: So you mentioned a few ways the state is helping people to coexist with wolves without having to kill them -- the fencing, the donkeys. And then you mentioned the problem with dead livestock. People who raise livestock will have animals die from time to time, from disease or whatever, and they have to have a place to put the carcasses. An NPR report recently covered what they do about this in parts of Montana. They have a designated person who comes and collects the carcasses and takes them to a place away from live animals, so they don’t stay on the ranch and serve as that kind of bait. And that seems to be working, the report said. So can those things be done here?

D: While I do not claim to be a farming expert, for ethical reasons, I say that yes, these things need to be done. If we are going to herd animals, we need to adopt practices that protect those animals. It might have been the same broadcast that you heard on NPR where I heard that in Montana there is someone who is actually teaching the cows how to herd up and protect themselves from wolves the same way that bison do. Which is pretty intriguing. And it does bring up a question: Why don’t we just raise bison? Why don’t we raise the kinds of animals who naturally protect themselves? I have read that Highland cattle, for example, will do that. I have a neighbor who keeps a llama to guard her farm. There are lots of ways to do this.
K: In other words, you see strong arguments that we don’t need a hunt, per se, to protect livestock, pets or ourselves from wolves?

D: Yes. And even before the hunt farmers had the right to shoot a wolf that they caught hurting their livestock or their pet. And they also had the right to get a permit to shoot a wolf later if they had experienced threats to their animals. So people already have the right to kill a problem wolf on their land, with or without a permit, depending on the situation. This was already in place.

During the Indigenous Earth Issues Summit at Northern Michigan University in Marquette last Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, Barbara Bradley, right, of Scandia, signs the petition to repeal Public Act 21 and give the wolf hunt decision back to Michigan voters. Collecting signatures at the Summit are Keep Michigan Wolves Protected volunteers Catherine Parker of Marquette and Rich Sloat of Iron River. Jill Fritz, Keep Michigan Wolves Protected campaign director (not pictured), also collected signatures during Friday's Summit. Together, the three volunteers collected nearly 60 signatures at the Summit. "The people attending the event and the students taking classes in the building were tremendously supportive of our efforts and eager to sign the petition," Fritz said. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

K: What for you would be the ideal outcome on this issue?

D: Well, certainly that we decide that we won’t have the wolf hunt. That’s the first thing. The second thing would be that perhaps we as citizens could be awakened to our need to be educated about these issues, and to be aware of how each of our fellow creatures fits into a system of which we are a part.

Wolves are important and there are studies galore that show that by keeping wolves in an ecosystem, that system is balanced in all sorts of ways. But that is not everything that is at stake here. This is more about what we can trust our lawmakers with -- and how we want our decisions to be made. Is it going to be all out of fear? Out of ignorance? Or will it be out of some sort of informed care? That’s what really matters.***

Editor's Notes: 
* Keweenaw Now guest writer Katie Alvord is the author of Divorce Your Car and several articles on Keweenaw Now, including three prize-winning articles on climate change in the Lake Superior Basin. Click here to read about her journalism award and links to these articles, which were published on Keweenaw Now in 2007.

** To learn more about the petition drive -- and the goal to collect at least 225,000 signatures for a referendum on P.A. 21 (second wolf hunt legislation) visit Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.

*** See also our Aug. 25, 2013, article, "Wolf advocates kick off second petition drive, seek referendum on Michigan wolf hunt law."

UPDATE: When the Natural Resources Commission approved the public wolf harvest on May 9, 2013 (P.A. 21 became law on May 8, 2013), only one of the commissioners voted "no" -- Annoesjka Steinman, who was at that time the only NRC member with any credentials related to the environment. In addition to holding a master's degree from Grand Valley State University in natural resources management and a bachelor's degree in natural science from the University of South Florida, Steinman is executive director and CEO of the Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, a nonprofit organization which offers 143 acres of walking trails, an interpretive center and animal hospital, a small farm. Steinman is no longer a member of NRC. In December 2013, she was replaced by Vicki J. Pontz of Portland, Michigan, who was appointed to the NRC on Dec. 31, 2013, for a two-year term (expiring Dec. 31, 2015).

Pontz was the Director of the Environmental Stewardship Division at the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) for five years. She also served as MDA's Legislative Liaison for five years, overseeing legislative and regulatory activities for all MDA divisions and working directly with members of the Michigan Legislature on issues ranging from food safety, bovine tuberculosis, and horse racing to pesticide regulation and water use. She also has experience working for the Michigan Farm Bureau. Her areas of expertise include natural resources and the environment and K-12 education -- and she is an avid hunter, hiker, and cyclist.


Kathy Johnson said...

Proud of you cousin Diane. Keep on fighting the good fight. Cousin Kathy

Harvey Desnick said...

Fabulous of the best I've read on this subject. Thanks Katy!!

Digital Apps Class said...

Great interview.