By DAVID EGGERT | Associated Press
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan lawmakers on Wednesday are expected to pass a law to keep intact the state's power to allow wolf hunts, overriding two referendums on the November ballot backed by groups that oppose hunting the once-endangered animal.
The pending move not only is sparking debate over whether a wolf hunt should be held for the second straight year. It also is reviving questions over the extent to which the Republican-controlled Legislature should interfere with issues headed to a statewide vote.
In May, legislators approved a minimum wage increase to head off a ballot initiative that would have raised the hourly minimum more, particularly for tipped employees. Election officials later ruled that proponents had not collected enough valid petition signatures regardless.
In December 2012, lawmakers passed a replacement for an emergency manager law struck down by voters in a referendum a month before.
The proposal before the Legislature now — initiated legislation backed by various outdoor and hunting groups that gathered voter signatures — is designed to make moot November referendums on two laws that cleared the way for Michigan's first wolf hunt in decades.
The Natural Resources Commission scheduled the hunt under authority granted by the Legislature last year. Opponents had gathered enough voter signatures to require a referendum on a law approved in December 2012 that designated the gray wolf a game animal.
So Gov. Rick Snyder signed a second law in May 2013 giving the commission the authority to decide which animals should be designated as species that can be hunted, prompting opponents to collect enough signatures this year for a second referendum.
“It's enormously contemptuous of voters,” Jill Fritz, director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, said of the Legislature's expected approval of the new legislation. “They don't trust the voters to make the decision on whether wolves should be a game species or not. They've basically shown contempt for the intelligence of voters, the very voters who by the way voted them into office.”
But Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican who strongly supports the initiated bill, said it was voter-initiated and a lot is at stake for hunting in general — not just the wolf hunt that led 22 wolves to be killed in the Upper Peninsula last November and December. The state had authorized a take of 43.
The measure — like one of the laws subject to referendum — would carry out the wishes of voters who approved a 1996 ballot initiative giving the commission, whose members are appointed by the governor and serve staggered terms, authority to set hunting policy in Michigan based on scientific data, Casperson said.
“The United State Humane Society has an awful lot of money,” he said, warning that if the hunting laws were repealed in November, the animal rights group could be emboldened to challenge other hunting-related decisions by the state. “I get concerned that they could pour enough money in with 30-second sound bites ... and I can't say people would get the whole story.”
The anti-wolf hunt ballot group has spent nearly $1.1 million on signature gathering and other expenses. The pro-hunting ballot committee has spent more than $700,000.
Pro-hunting and farm groups contend the opposition to wolf hunting is fueled by out-of-state animal rights groups that want to ban all hunting. Opponents acknowledge receiving support from elsewhere but insist their movement is home-grown.
In recent days, there have been reports that five hunting dogs and a cow died after three separate wolf attacks in the U.P. Foes of wolf hunting say farmers and government officials already have the right to kill problem wolves without needing an annual state-endorsed hunt.
The Board of State Canvassers certified the initiative petition on July 24. The Legislature has until Sept. 2 to vote or it will be placed on the November ballot alongside the referendums, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.
The Senate's only session day before the deadline is Wednesday. The House meets Wednesday and Aug. 27. Because the bill is a citizens' initiative, it would not need Snyder's signature.
The measure would allocate $1 million for “rapid response” activities against aquatic invasive species such as Asian carp. The appropriation would make the legislation immune from being overturned in a referendum.
Keep Michigan Wolves Protected is not ruling out legal action if the Legislature approves the bill, Fritz said.