LANSING (AP) - A pro-hunting coalition on Monday received the go-ahead to collect petition signatures aimed at protecting Michigan's ability to hold wolf hunts, putting in doubt efforts to stop the hunts at the ballot box next November.
Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management, which includes the Michigan United Conservation Clubs and various hunting organizations, will try to gather 258,000 signatures for the citizen-initiated law. If enough are amassed, the measure would go to receptive lawmakers who twice have approved measures that opened the door to hunting the predator.
If lawmakers do not act, the proposed law would go to voters, who already will decide one and perhaps two ballot issues involving wolf hunting in 2014.
Michigan's first wolf hunt since the animal was placed on the endangered species list nearly 40 years ago got underway last month and runs through December, unless the maximum kill of 43 is reached beforehand. Hunters had killed 17 wolves in the Upper Peninsula through Monday morning.
"We want the wildlife here to be managed by sound science, not hype and who can spend the most money on commercials," Merle Shepard, chairman of the pro-wolf hunt group, said after the state election board approved the form of its petition.
Hunting forces are betting that legislators will pass the law, which would effectively make the 2014 referendum or referendums meaningless and save millions spent on advertising to defend wolf hunts.
Supporters 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.
The latest measure would reaffirm a 1996 voter-approved law letting the state Natural Resources Commission regulate hunting. It would allocate $1 million for "rapid response" activities against aquatic invasive species such as Asian carp. Under state law, tacking on the appropriation would make the legislation immune from being overturned in a referendum.
The measure would also allow active military members to get free hunting, fishing and trapping licenses instead of having to pay $1, mirroring a change included in a wolf hunt bill signed earlier this year by Gov. Rick Snyder.
The 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 on the game species law. They also are circulating petitions seeking a vote on the second measure that gave the commission the authority to decide which animals should be designated as game species that can be hunted. Previously, only the Legislature had that power.
"In a desperate move to silence the voice of voters, groups supporting the trophy hunting of wolves have turned to this petition for a legislative initiative," said Nancy Warren, an Upper Peninsula resident and regional director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition. "We hope that legislators will see through the charade and reject this act which, despite its name, is not science-based."
If enough signatures are collected but lawmakers ignore the initiative, voters could decide three wolf measures 11 months from now. In cases where ballot measures conflict, the one receiving the highest number of "yes" votes prevails.