MyNorth Classic: Return of Michigan Wolves

This story, which explores the early years of reintroducing gray wolves to Northern Michigan, first ran in the February 2001 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Once nearly wiped out of Michigan, wolves again stalk our wilds. What brought back the Northwoods’ most cunning predator? Credit the creature’s shrewd survival skills—and help from the wolf men of the Upper Peninsula.

In January of 1990 Jim Hammill stopped his snowmobile on a snow-covered back road in Michigan’s Dickinson County, about 20 miles from the Wisconsin border. A set of prints running along the shoulder had caught his eye. He walked to the tracks and bent down for a closer look. Sure enough, they were from the wolf he’d nicknamed Big Foot. “He had an outlandish-sized track,” Hammill remembers.

Though he’d never laid eyes on the animal, Hammill, the Department of Natural Resources wildlife supervisor for the Western Upper Peninsula, had monitored the lone wolf for six years. Just that October he’d come upon signs that Big Foot was traveling with two other wolves. Having only prints to go by, Hammill couldn’t tell if either of the new wolves was female. And answering that question was all-important to the biologist. If Big Foot had found a mate, his would be the first wolf pack in mainland Michigan in 50 years—a union that Hammill hoped would spur the state into a species recovery plan.

Walking slowly, head down, Hammill continued to read the tracks. Not far from Big Foot’s prints he found the tracks of the wolf’s two companions. Then, in a snow bank, the evidence Hammill had long sought: a yellow-brown urine stain flecked with blood—the sign of a female in estrus. Big Foot, indeed, had a mate. “That was a magic moment,” he says.

But Hammill didn’t hurry to the newspaper to announce his discovery. He had witnessed much wolf hatred in the U.P. and knew that broadcasting the news would likely mean the death of animals whose presence connected to Hammill in an ancient way. So Hammill did what he always did when he found a wolf trail. He snuffed it out. Steering his snowmobile carefully over the tracks, Hammill followed them into the forest for as long as he could. “I wanted to protect those wolves,” he says.

Hammill held onto the magic of that moment throughout the 1990s as he quietly lobbied the DNR for a wolf recovery program and carefully introduced the idea to the U.P. public. His subtle approach and native understanding of Upper Peninsula attitudes toward wolves—and how to change those views—eventually achieved the resurgence he’d hoped for that January day. Last winter, 216 wolves in at least 30 packs roamed the U.P. timberland. Healthy litters each spring are ramping that number upward. The success of wolves in the U.P. hasn’t received national attention like the government’s wolf program in Yellowstone National Park. But the U.P. case is perhaps even more remarkable. It reveals how one man’s perseverance helped to bring these rare animals—and the sense of wild they carry—back to the forests of his homeland.

You could say Hammill’s reverence for wolves began even before he was born. His father understood what wolves in the landscape signified and passed that understanding down to his son. Once, as a boy, while cutting firewood with his father, Hammill remembers him pointing to a knoll: “I saw a wolf standing over there in 1947,” the dad told young Jim. “But now they’re all gone. They killed them all. And nothing is the same anymore.”

“At that time I didn’t know what he meant,” says Hammill. “But now I do. The woods have a different character when there are wolves. The wolf is to the North Country what the African lion is to the Serengeti. It’s the top predator.”

But most folks in the U.P. didn’t share the Hammills’ reverence for wolves. Up where time crept at a frontier pace well into the 20th century (Jim grew up without running water), wolves were feared and hated. As locals saw it, wolves ate livestock and competed with hunters for deer. They were vermin—an attitude that hadn’t changed since whites settled Michigan. State government-sponsored bounties had the wolf shot and trapped out of the Lower Peninsula by 1900. The same bounties had the Upper Peninsula population all but extirpated by the 1960s—a pitiful end to a species that had roamed Michigan’s forests since the last glacier receded.

The scenario was much the same in Wisconsin. By the time the Federal Endangered Species Act—which listed wolves as protected—came along in 1974, the entire United States Great Lakes’ wolf population amounted to some 1,000 animals in Northern Minnesota. In the wake of the act, the federal government formed a timber wolf recovery team. Michigan chose Ralph Bailey, a respected DNR wildlife biologist and wolf advocate as its representative. Bailey was appointed chairman of the team, and the state appeared poised for a wolf recovery initiative.

But then a wolf experiment by a graduate student at Northern Michigan University in Marquette went awry. In the spring of 1974, with the DNR’s help, the student arranged the translocation of four wolves from Minnesota to wilds around Marquette. The public reacted with venom. Canisters appeared in U.P. taverns to collect money for a bounty on the wolves. A hunting group hired an anti-wolf advocate from Minnesota to visit and speak. Local radio stations and newspapers heightened the antagonism. By November the wolves were dead: a car hit one, hunters shot two more, a trapper killed the fourth.

The disaster suffocated the department’s enthusiasm for a wolf recovery program, and a laissez-faire policy prevailed: wolves would have to return on their own. When—and if—a breeding population formed, the state would develop a management plan. “Some people thought it was a waste to put money into a program if the locals were going to cream the animals off anyway,” Bailey says.

But Lansing’s laissez-faire translated to a death sentence for any animal that dared set paw in the state. Just the year before, Hammill—recently designated the area wildlife biologist in Crystal Falls—had seen his first wolves in the wild when two animals that looked like siblings crossed the road in front of his car. Thrilled, he wrote to his superior in Lansing. The response was typical of a hear-no-wolf, see-no-wolf attitude Hammill was to encounter for years to come: “They grow some big coyotes in that country,” the senior officer wrote back.

If Hammill had doubted himself (which he didn’t) he was sadly vindicated a year or so later when two young wolf siblings turned up shot in the same area. The scenario became all too familiar. With federal protection and state enforcement, Minnesota’s wolf population grew, and as it did, animals in search of territory headed east into Wisconsin and Michigan. They entered the state via Hammill’s district. His office received more and more reports of sightings. Every now and then a wolf carcass turned up. Death was usually by car or gun. But with no wolf money, Hammill had no staff to manage and monitor the population. Just as bad, there was no program for educating the public about living with wolves.

So Hammill took on the monitoring and education tasks himself, at his own expense and on his own time. “It’s typical of Jim’s style that he did more than he was asked,” says Bailey. “He became the state expert on the status of wolves.”

Hammill logged thousands of miles and many weekends to check out wolf sightings—a mission that forced him to make the most of his self-reliance. Once, along with two biologists from Wisconsin, he set out in a 40-below blizzard to verify a wolf sighting in Iron County. After spending the night in a friend’s deer camp, they woke to temperatures so cold they didn’t register on the thermometer. Their car wouldn’t start. Not to be delayed, they made a small fire and pushed the car over the top to warm it. “We lost some rubber parts on the bottom,” Hammill says with a wry smile. “But we got it started.”

Meanwhile, Hammill’s one-man education program spread the gospel that a small, healthy population of wolves could coexist with people—even deer hunters. Gradually, he began to perceive a wolf tolerance in the Upper Peninsula. “The environmental movement made people more aware of the value of nature and wildlife,” he says.

The state, too, sensed the change—and that coupled with Hammill’s news of Big Foot’s pack in early 1990, inspired the department to support a study of Michigan residents’ attitudes towards wolves, sponsored by the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota.

The results were clear: Michigan residents, including those in the Upper Peninsula, would welcome a managed population of wolves in their forests. The state was finally ready to begin forming a recovery and management plant. Step one was giving Hammill a small budget to monitor wolves—data that would contribute to that plan. To do the job right, he knew he needed help—someone to bring back reliable information. But that person had to be able to mingle with, not intimidate, Upper Peninsula hunters.

He needed Don Lonsway.

Don Lonsway reaches into the back of his truck and pulls out an enormous pair of wooden snow shoes—not some nimble-looking aluminum pair, but boat-like things that can keep a man atop shoulder-deep snow. Before strapping them on, he bends down and laces his boots—unless he’s snowshoeing he prefers them unlaced. The temperature is, as Lonsway sees it, a mild 20 degrees, so his hands are bare. His outerwear: Carhartt jacket and baseball cap.

It’s mid-morning on a February day in 2000—ten years after Hammill first saw the flecks of blood from Big Foot’s companion. Lonsway and his assistant, Kristy Bly, are on the trail of the Net River wolf pack. Last year, the pack had three animals. The pair’s mission today is finding out if the pack has grown. After conferring quietly—almost by telepathy—with Bly, Lonsway speculates that there are four wolves in the pack. But he wants to be sure.

Snowshoes on, the two are ready to track. Before he heads into the bush, though, Lonsway pauses to study the helter skelter of prints. He shakes his head and smiles. “Happy dog,” he says.

It is a typical day for Lonsway. Each year since he signed on with Hammill in 1993, Lonsway has tracked wolves every day from January until the spring melt—seven days a week, sun up to sun down. Spring and summer roll at the same pace, but in those seasons Lonsway traps the wolves (in a specially designed leg trap that doesn’t hurt the animal) and radio collars them. Come autumn, he’ll take some time and go home to his family in Ironwood.

Believe it or not, the job has become easier. Before this year, Lonsway covered all 16,500 square miles of the Upper Peninsula alone. But now other trackers are working the eastern half, where wolves that migrated across the ice from Ontario have established packs. And this year, too, he has Bly, his first assistant ever. As she sees it, her U.P. sojourn is an opportunity to apprentice with one of the world’s premier wolf trackers. She calls Lonsway Mr. Magic for the way he can turn up a wolf track anywhere. He says matter-of-factly: “I can see tracks from the highway going 70 miles per hour. The only problem is when I jam on the breaks.”

Originally a mechanic by trade, Lonsway guided bear hunters on the side and tracked wolves for a hobby. But soon wolves monopolized his wonder. Though now his primary goal is counting wolf populations, back in the early days he was learning as much about U.P. wolves as possible—not only their numbers but also every nuance of their behavior. So Lonsway would find a trail and follow it as long as he could. If he found himself far from civilization at nightfall, he’d build a small fire and curl up until daylight. “I’ve roamed more than any alpha male,” he says, referring to the name for a wolf pack leader. Add a handful of death-defying crashes through ice into rivers, and Lonsway’s career reads like a Jack London novel.

And what has he learned about wolves? That the U.P. variety, anyway, are more fascinating than anything he’s ever seen on a nature documentary. When he began tracking Lonsway was well versed in textbook wolf knowledge: that packs—sometimes as large as 13 animals, but usually from four to six—bonded in a complex, almost humanlike hierarchy. Alpha males and females generally mate for life and raise their young within the pack’s makeup of older siblings, maiden aunts, bachelor uncles and even an occasional family friend. Authority is maintained through body language, howling and scent marking. Among other things, hierarchy rules impose an amazing sexual restraint: although all but the youngest pups are biologically able to breed, generally only the alpha couple does so.

Echoes of human behavior took on added meaning the time Lonsway went to investigate an abandoned house where wolves had been seen. The lead checked out. On the first floor, Lonsway could see they’d been curling up to sleep on an old mattress. But the thing that made the human-wolf connection seem almost too real: they were nesting in the upstairs, too.

If the wolf family sounds a bit Disney-like, know that for all their communal ties, wolves viciously defend their position in the hierarchy, fighting each other with jaws twice as powerful as those of a German shepherd dog. But Lonsway’s interest with the animals is not with their violence—he has no fear of them. What fascinates Lonsway most is the wolf’s skill at conserving energy during long Northern winters—a fascination born, perhaps, of Lonsway’s own survival skills.

On the trail of the Net River pack this February day, Lonsway marvels again at their energy savvy. Early in the trek, he had left Bly to snowshoe the periphery of the main tracks. A short way into the woods, he comes upon the prints of a fifth wolf, probably the alpha male, who’d split from the pack to hunt. A half-mile or so into the woods, the wolf’s tracks rejoin the pack, and the animals line out—meaning they took up a single file procession, nose to tail, following precisely in each others’ steps. By allowing the leaders to break trail, the weaker members save valuable energy.

But, Lonsway explains, there’s more here than meets the eye. Breaking a dead limb from a tree, he pokes it into the powdery snow next to the tracks. It plunges to a depth of about two feet. “See that,” he says. “Now watch.” He pushes the stick into a track and it won’t budge deeper—the snow below it is packed firm. “They’ve used this same trail over and over again all winter, paw for paw,” he explains. “Saves breaking new trail.” More amazing, the wolves can find trails even after a snowfall.

Lonsway has accrued most of his wolf knowledge by studying tracks. About the only time he comes face to face with a wolf is when he’s trapped one for radio collaring. Or when it’s dead. Such was the case with a female pup Lonsway and Hammill trapped in the summer of 1997—a magnificent creature the pair posed with for pictures. A year later, the animal was dead—shot as she chewed on a deer carcass at the edge of a highway. Her killer was a deer hunter who was frustrated at not having bagged a deer and took vengeance on the wolf. “It touches ya,” says Lonsway. “You feel personal about a wolf after you’ve handled it.”

Setbacks aside, the comeback of Michigan’s wolf population happened fast. From 1990 to 1997, as the state was finalizing its official recovery plan, the population rebounded to over 100 animals and 20 packs. Last winter’s final count was 21 animals and at least 30 packs. Much of the credit goes to the animal’s survival skills, as well as the newly supportive attitude of Upper Peninsula residents.

But Hammill and Lonsway helped both wolf health and Yooper attitude along. Several years ago, Hammill spearheaded a program to send volunteers into deer camps located in wolf habitat, to educate hunters about wolves. And when a mange epidemic looked like it was going to decimate the fledgling packs, Hammill’s crew treated infected wolves with an antidote—either by directly injecting trapped animals or by leaving injected raw meat near dens. Even more important, from an enforcement and management standpoint: Through the pair’s work, the state knows where its wolves are—knows which packs are most vulnerable, and which are apt to be troublesome.

All told, the comeback has cost a pittance. The annual wolf recovery budget has never exceeded $30,000—money that comes out of the non-game fund Michigan residents check off on their income tax. The Yellowstone wolf reintroduction program cost $500,000 its first year.

Hammill never did lay eyes on Big Foot, and he doesn’t know what happened to him. The last time Hammill saw Big Foot’s tracks was in 1993. But descendants of the tough old creature still carry on the original pack. Their territory isn’t far from Crystal Falls, so Hammill checks on the pack regularly—by tracking, monitoring radio signals or howling. Hammill’s wolf howl is legendary—Lonsway can’t even compete. Sometimes Hammill invokes it in the name of science. Sometimes he does it just to stay in touch.

On his way to do the latter one 8-degree evening last winter, Hammill stops to fill his truck at a gas station in Crystal Falls. A man at the next pump recognizes him and asks, “How are the wolves?” Hammill assures him they’re fine.

Despite such evidence that Yoopers are on his side, Hammill has his critics—like the local DJ who berates him on air and calls him Wolfman Jim. “He hates government, so he hates the DNR, so he hates wolves,” Hammill says. He laughs. But generally speaking, the exchange with the man at the gas station reveals the changed Upper Peninsula attitude toward wolves: curious, even proud—as long as there are enough deer to go around. And there are. Even after hunters and wolves bag their prey, some 200,000 deer died recently of malnutrition in a difficult Upper Peninsula winter.

Potential problems might also swing U.P. attitudes back to the negative. Already, wolves killed four calves on a farm near Escanaba. (The culprits were trapped and removed to the hinterlands). The potential for bigger problems also exists. Like bears, wolves may become dangerous when they become too accustomed to humans. Three recent incidents in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park make the point: two people bitten by wolves, and a toddler picked up by a wolf, then dropped, after the child’s father chased the animal.

But Michigan officials intend to intervene before the state’s wolves get that bold. Once wolf counts reach 200 for five consecutive years, the DNR will request that the animal be removed from federal and state endangered species lists. Then, problem wolves can be killed by government officials and perhaps even managed through an open hunting season. Hunting promises to be controversial. But all of that is to come. For the time being, Michigan and its wolves are co-existing in historic harmony.

A snowy swamp stretches out under a gibbous moon and a spangle of constellations when Hammill stops his truck along the same road where he found the tracks of Big Foot’s pack ten years ago. The biologist—who has come to look like something of a venerable alpha wolf himself, with his gray and black mottled beard, arrow-shaped nose and steady, intent expression—climbs out of the truck.

He cups his hand to his mouth and begins the low rumble of a howl that rises to a primeval pitch. He waits a few moments. Silence. He calls again, but still no answer. Hammill shrugs and gets into his truck. Big Foot’s progeny are hunkered down too far away to hear, he explains. But the pack is out there somewhere. He knows for a fact the wolves and their wildness are there.T

Tips for identifying a wolf

Say you’re snowshoeing and you discover a hellacious-sized paw mark. Or maybe you glimpse a big canine body slipping into the forest. Wolf? Coyote? Big ol’ dog? Here’s how to tell.

Adult wolf prints can measure as large as 4″ wide by 5″ long. Coyote prints are half that size. While some dog tracks are as large, look at the prints’ placement pattern. The narrow-chested wolf places one foot directly in front of the other, more like a cat than a dog. Wolves also lay an arrow-straight trail—coyote and dogs tend to wander in a curved line.

In the flesh, wolves are big. Think deer sized. Adults measure nearly 3 feet to the shoulder and 6 feet from nose to the ends of their straight, bushy tails.

Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor of Traverse and MyNorth.com.

Article Comments

  • Lydia Lohrer

    Both of these gentlemen who fought harder than anyone to bring about the return of the wolf now favor hunting them in some capacity to manage their numbers. The project has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Today, Lonsway spends every spare moment as the only person responding to wolf nuisance calls in the entire UP.

    • Gumpchun

      I support the wolf return, but don’t mind some carefully controlled hunting of wolves. Just like the bear hunts, it will keep the wolves shy of people and probably save more wolves in the long run. In any event, hunters are some of the greatest wilderness defenders around. Hunting and conservation can and do go hand in hand. There is not reason we can’t have both.

      The wolves must be loving the U.P. though; all those deer!

  • Lydia Lohrer

    By the way- excellent article!