LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The Republican-led state House passed legislation Thursday that could block voters from deciding whether to allow wolf hunting in Michigan.
The measure, which passed on a 72-38 vote with bipartisan support, would give the governor-appointed Natural Resources Commission the power to decide which types of wildlife can be hunted. Gov. Rick Snyder's desk is the bill's next stop, and his spokeswoman said he intends to sign the bill, pending final review.
Supporters of the bill say it protects residents in rural Upper Peninsula communities whose safety is threatened by the growing wolf population, while keeping out-of-state special interest groups from determining Michigan policies.
But opponents contend the measure, which passed the Republican-led Senate last week, is a way around a proposed referendum on wolf hunting.
Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, the group that collected the more than 240,000 signatures necessary to request a statewide vote on the issue, have said lawmakers are fast-tracking the measure through the Legislature before the state Board of Canvassers certifies enough signatures were gathered for a referendum.
If so, no wolf hunt could be held until after the referendum.
Should the bill become law, voters could still strike down wolf hunting on the 2014 ballot, but it would be meaningless because the NRC could still approve wolf hunting.
"We are very disappointed that the legislature would ignore the will of so many Michiganders who have clearly spoken out that they value the opportunity to have a say in critical wildlife decisions," said Jill Fritz, director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected and Michigan's chapter of the Human Society of the United States.
But Republican Rep. Ed McBroom of Vulcan said the statewide referendum would disenfranchise Upper Peninsula residents.
"We need resource management science to be our guide to help us in this situation to deal with serious threats to our livestock, our pets and our families," he said.
Recent Department of Natural Resources counts estimate there are about 700 wolves in the Upper Peninsula. DNR wildlife biologists last month asked the Natural Resources Commission to schedule a two-month hunting season this fall. Up to 43 wolves could be killed in three areas of the Upper Peninsula where officials say the animals have repeatedly attacked livestock and pets.
The commission could vote later this month.
McBroom said special interest groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States, are using the state's referendum process to slowly eliminate hunting rights.
He said the measure passed Thursday "really cut the legs out from some of their special interest groups coming and utilizing our processes in a way that doesn't benefit our state."
But Fritz said the Humane Society is just one part of a large coalition that opposes wolf hunting, which includes Native American tribes, conservation groups and Michigan residents. Fritz said her organization is still reviewing all of their options about how they will proceed.