Wolf Recovery in Michigan

James H. Hammill
Formerly of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Updated by the International Wolf Center, 2013

At one time, all of what is now Michigan was home to wolves. However, the pattern of habitat destruction, wolf persecution and extirpation by humans which occurred in most of the eastern United States, continued into Michigan with European settlers. A bounty was established in 1838, at a time when wolves were already nearly eliminated from the southern Lower Peninsula of the state. Indeed by 1910, wolves were believed to be extirpated from all of the Lower Peninsula, leaving a population only on the Upper Peninsula.

Intensive logging of virgin forests occurred throughout the Upper Peninsula during the early 20th century. The subsequent reforestation set the stage for an unprecedented increase in the whitetailed deer population. Conditions of abundant prey and relatively low human pressure made the time ripe for a wolf population to expand. From the late 1930s to the early 1950s these conditions persisted. In spite of this, wolf numbers continued to decline until it was thought that remnant animals included only un-mated individuals or immigrants from more stable populations in Minnesota or Ontario, Canada. The decline in this remnant population is reflected in the bounty records from the Upper Peninsula during the 1950s. The number of wolves registered in 1956 was 30; in 1957, unknown; in 1958, seven; in 1959, one. In 1960, Michigan repealed the bounty and in 1965, granted the wolf full protection by law. Wolves were also protected as an endangered species in Michigan beginning in 1974 as a result of the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973.

When wolves began to get a foothold in Wisconsin during the mid-to-late 1970s, activity stirred again on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Through the 1970s, biologists verified the existence of increasing numbers of single animals. Finally, in the late 1980s, a pair of wolves were observed traveling in the central Upper Peninsula. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) verified that they produced pups for the first time in spring of 1991. In summer 1992, with the help of the Wisconsin DNR, the Michigan DNR radio-collared one of the wolves in this only known pack in the Upper Peninsula. By the close of 1992, we verified the existence of at least 20 wolves. Between 1992 and 1996, wolf numbers continued to grow across the Upper Peninsula. The 1995 spring count was 80 animals in at least 12 packs, in 1996 the count showed 116 wolves in at least 16 packs and in 1997 we estimated the number of wolves would decline somewhat to 112. But the 1997 survey showed the total population estimate was back up to 140 wolves across the Upper Peninsula. The most recent survey in 2013 showed over 650 wolves in the Upper Peninsula.

We now know that wolves live across the entire Upper Peninsula, which contains more than 16,000 square miles of rugged forest. There is also abundant prey and low enough human density to afford the wolf a chance to survive. To date there have been only eight confirmed cases of depredation on livestock and two cases of depredation on domestic dogs. In contrast to the Upper Peninsula, the Lower Peninsula has relatively limited blocks of “wild land where wolves could roam, although there are abundant food resources.

In 1992, a Michigan wolf recovery team was formed. The team has published a wolf recovery and management plan which is now being used. The planning process, which included extensive public input, was patterned somewhat after the one used in Wisconsin. The recovery takes into account people’s desires and concerns and the potential of the land to support wolves.

Visit the Michigan DNR Wolf Page for more information on Michigan’s management of wolves.