By John Flesher, AP Environmental Writer

TRAVERSE CITY (AP) – It may be merely symbolic, but Michigan voters will get a chance during the Nov. 4 election to send a message about whether hunters should be permitted to target the gray wolf, a hardy predator staking a new claim to the Upper Peninsula a half-century after being shot, poisoned and trapped into statewide oblivion.

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The general election ballot will ask voters whether they approve or disapprove of laws allowing wolf hunts that the Legislature enacted in 2012 and 2013. Opponents gathered enough petition signatures to force statewide referendums on both, although not quickly enough to head off a hunt last year, during which 22 wolves were killed — fewer than the authorized maximum of 43.

Lawmakers this summer approved a third measure initiated by pro-hunting groups that will remain in effect regardless of how the statewide votes turn out. It empowers the state Natural Resources Commission, a seven-member panel appointed by the governor, to designate game species and set hunting and fishing policy. Lawmakers attached a $1 million appropriation to the bill, making it referendum-proof under state law.

Opponents contend the latest measure is unconstitutional and may challenge it in court. Meanwhile, they’re campaigning hard for “no” votes on the other two, hoping that a successful lawsuit and victory at the ballot box would convince lawmakers to back off.

“It’s very critical to send a strong message to the Legislature that the public does not want to see the wolf listed as a game species,” said Nancy Warren, Great Lakes regional director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition.

Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management, an alliance of sporting groups whose petition drive put the most recent measure before the Legislature, says it’s encouraging people to vote in favor of retaining both laws but won’t pump additional money into the effort. The organization had spent $714,030 through the end of July, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office.

“Legally it’s a moot point,” spokesman Drew YoungeDyke said.

Even if the two laws are voted down, he added, it won’t necessarily prove that most Michigan residents oppose wolf hunts.

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“All it would say is if you spend more than $1 million in political advertising on something that legally has no significance, you can get the outcome you want,” YoungeDyke said.

Opponents are preparing a $1.5 million TV ad blitz in key media markets, said Jill Fritz, director of a group called Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, which is sponsoring the campaign with the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

YoungeDyke’s coalition contends the push to stop wolf hunts is driven largely by out-of-state animal rights activists, but Fritz noted that the pro-hunting side drew support from Safari Club International and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Wolves once roamed all of Michigan but had all but disappeared by 1960, when a state bounty program ended. A couple of decades later, with state and federal protection, they began migrating back to the U.P. from Minnesota and Wisconsin. Their numbers rose rapidly and were estimated at 636 last spring.

The Natural Resources Commission has ruled out another hunt for this year, whether or not voters endorse the practice. But the Department of Natural Resources, which advises the commission, is updating its wolf management plan and likely will continue supporting hunting and perhaps trapping as a means of defusing conflicts between the animals and people in certain areas, said Russ Mason, wildlife division chief.

“The function of the commission is to weave together the best available science and the preferences of the public,” Mason said. “We’ll see how that plays out.”

Fritz said the commission isn’t an honest broker. “Totally beholden to trophy hunters and their lobbying groups,” she said.

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