TRAVERSE CITY - During a lifetime of hunting, John Haggard has targeted elk in Colorado, moose in Alaska and caribou in Canada. Now comes a new challenge closer to home: the gray wolf.
Michigan's first wolf hunt since the animal was placed on the endangered species list nearly 40 years ago gets underway Friday. Haggard is among 1,200 people licensed to participate and he's been counting the days.
"They're a crafty animal," said Haggard, 72, of Charlevoix. "Even at my age, I'm always willing to learn a new skill."
Michigan is the sixth state to authorize wolf hunting following the removal of federal protections in recent years, a testament to the strong comeback of a species that was close to eradication in the lower 48 states. The season runs through December, unless the maximum kill of 43 is reached beforehand.
As elsewhere, the hunt is bitterly contested. Supporters say Michigan's wolf population - which the Department of Natural Resources estimates at 658, all in the Upper Peninsula - is healthy and secure. They contend a hunt is needed to rein in a predator that has killed or injured hundreds of cattle, sheep and dogs since the mid-1990s.
Opponents say the damage and danger are exaggerated. Relatively few farms have experienced problems, they say, and the landowners have legal authority to shoot wolves caught attacking livestock.
"There is no sound scientific basis to be killing these animals," said Nancy Warren, an Upper Peninsula resident and regional director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition. State wildlife officials "are bowing down to special interest groups," she said.
DNR biologist Brian Roell acknowledged that a disproportionate number of livestock attacks have happened on a single farm whose owner has drawn criticism for practices such as leaving animal carcasses unburied and failing to use state-provided fencing.
But 26 attacks were reported on 10 other farms in the same hunting zone between 2010 and 2012, despite use of non-lethal controls such as flashing lights and guard donkeys, the department says.
The hunt is a last-resort means "to reduce conflicts in areas where our current tools just haven't cut it," DNR fur-bearing animal specialist Adam Bump said.
Wolves wandered Michigan prior to European settlement, which began in the late 1600s, but were all but wiped out by 1960, when a government bounty program was repealed. As state and federal law made killing the animals illegal, members of a remnant population in Minnesota migrated into Wisconsin, then northward to the Upper Peninsula, where their presence was confirmed in 1989 and their numbers rose steadily.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed protection from wolves in the Great Lakes region in 2012. Minnesota and Wisconsin had hunts last year and are doing so again. In Minnesota, 54 had been killed as of Wednesday, with a maximum of 220 allowed. Just over 200 had been killed in Wisconsin, where the quota is 251.
An additional 234 have been killed in the Northern Rockies states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming this year, where the seasons are still open.
Michigan's Natural Resources Commission scheduled a hunt under authority granted by the Legislature this summer, following approval of a bill designating wolves as a game species.
Opponents have gathered enough voter signatures to require a statewide referendum in 2014 on the game species law. They're also circulating petitions seeking a vote on the second measure. If they succeed, this year's hunt may be the only one.
The DNR has designated three hunting zones. One includes the city of Ironwood and an adjacent township in the far western Upper Peninsula. The second, to the north and east, includes parts of Baraga, Houghton, Ontonagon and Gogebic counties. The third includes portions of Luce and Mackinac counties on the eastern side of the peninsula.
Opponents this week made a last-minute bid to stop the hunt with a television commercial in the Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids markets. The ad accuses state officials of basing decisions on bad information, including inaccurate reports of wolves threatening people, and urges Gov. Rick Snyder to intervene.
"It is troubling to think about this shy, very intelligent species being gunned down for no other reason than trophies and out of hatred," said Jill Fritz, director of the Keep Michigan Wolves Protected Campaign.
Although some on social media have called for ridding the Upper Peninsula of wolves, many hunt supporters insist that's not their intent.
"Every hunter that I know likes the idea of having wolves out there," said George Lindquist, a vice president of Michigan United Conservation Clubs. "They just feel we should be managing them like any other wildlife."
A regulated hunt is preferable to poaching, which happens now as frustrated residents take matters into their own hands, Lindquist added.
Travis Smith, of Marquette, who will be joining the hunt, said the much of the opposition comes from Michigan's Lower Peninsula and other states without wolves.
"I have nothing against wolves," said Smith, 33. "But it's a lot easier to appreciate them from afar than it is when you're living close to them."
Many Native Americans in Michigan oppose killing wolves, an animal central to their spirituality and culture. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe is hosting a candlelight and sacred fire vigil tonight to honor the animal before the hunt begins.
"It's going to be a very painful thing for us," tribal spokesman Frank Cloutier said. "We do consider the gray wolf to be a cousin of ours, and 43 will be taken."