The Michigan Senate has approved a bill that would designate the gray wolf as a game species, a possible step toward allowing hunters to kill them.
Senators approved the measure Thursday on a 23-15 vote. It now goes to the House, where a similar measure is pending.
Wolves have long been classified as an endangered species in Michigan. They were hunted to near-extinction in most of the lower 48 states until their placement on state and federal protection lists, which made it illegal to kill them.
The bill gives the Natural Resources Commission authority to decide whether to establish wolf hunting seasons.
Michigan is believed to have about 700 wolves. The neighboring states of Wisconsin and Minnesota began allowing hunts this fall.
The first members of Michigan's resurgent wolf population are believed to have migrated to the Upper Peninsula from Minnesota and Wisconsin, both of which have recreational hunts this fall. Minnesota officials want to reduce by 400 their estimated population of 2,900 wolves, while Wisconsin's goal is to kill 116 of its more than 800 wolves.
Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican and chairman of the Natural Resources and Environmental Policy Committee, said wolf numbers are getting out of hand in parts of the Upper Peninsula, where they're drawing complaints from people whose livestock and pets have been killed.
"We've got them casually walking right into the city of Ironwood," Casperson told reporters. "The western U.P. is suffering."
Tribes: The wolf is part of our creation story
Environmental groups and Indian tribes say more time is needed to make sure the population is secure before hunting is permitted. Upper Great Lakes wolves were dropped from the federal endangered species list in January, with management responsibility shifting to the states.
"They're part of our creation story, and they're also one of those cultural indicators that are inherent in our teachings," said Jimmie Mitchell, natural resources director for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
Nancy Warren, an Upper Peninsula resident and regional director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, said there isn't enough scientific evidence to justify a hunt. Ranchers already have authority to shoot wolves caught in the act of attacking livestock, and the Department of Natural Resources can remove those that habitually get too close to people, she said.
"No wolf has threatened or harmed anyone in Michigan," Warren said.