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A Price on Thpir Heads: Michigan's Wildlife Bounties.

The notion of state or local governments paying people to kill legally defined "noxious animals or birds" for the purpose of eradicating or controlling their populations no doubt seems odd--and perhaps even immoral--by today's ecological values. But Michigan's history shows that the practice was once common.

Imagine the look on the face of the Ann Arbor city clerk in 1917 when a resident presented 282 dead sparrows and requested his bounty payment of $5.64, based on Ann Arbor's reward of 2 cents per bird.

A few cents each for pests such as sparrows or crows does not seem like a lot, but it represented the practice of earning money for performing one's civic duty. The real profit was for the killing of large predators, including wolves, bobcats, coyotes, and foxes. Though the bounty placed on those animals varied according to the whims of state legislators and county commissioners, amounts generally ranged from $3 to $35, which was a substantial amount of money during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the collection of legitimate bounties was only the tip of the bounty-based economy, since fraudulent bounty payments were where the real money was.

Creating New Bounty Laws

In 1817, the U.S. Congress imposed a bounty on wolves in what remained of the Northwest Territory, making the practice of implementing wildlife bounties older than the state of Michigan itself. Throughout the years, various bounties were based on two primary goals--protecting domestic animals and, later, increasing populations of prey species, specifically those that were also game animals and birds.

Michigan took its first independent action late in 1837 with a wolf bounty law. A Michigan State Senate report issued early in 1838 made it clear that removal of "such an evil" was appropriate. The legislature quickly amended the 1837 law with the passage of Act 9 of 1838, creating a predator-control policy that lasted nearly 150 years. Intentions were made clear when the legislature called for the "destruction of wolves" in Act 9's title.

Large predators constituted a perceived threat to Michigan's emerging agricultural economy. Wolves sometimes killed farm animals as tentative settlers entered the state's wilderness. Cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, and horses were tempting targets for large predators, for they were much easier to kill than wild and wary prey. The impact on farmers could be serious.

The rationale for bounties changed in the late nineteenth century, when justification switched from protecting livestock to shielding desirable game animals and birds from predation. Newly established conservation laws identified a list of protected, desirable wild animals and birds, and it was believed that man could better keep populations in check than large, wild predators.

Switching the protection of livestock to that of game species necessitated expanding the list of target predators. To protect pheasants, grouse, rabbits, and other small species, natural hunters such as hawks, owls, and weasels were added to the growing list of "predatory and noxious animals and birds."

The Michigan state government took its perceived predator control commission very seriously. From 1837 to 2006, the state legislature passed or amended laws relative to bounties on a frequent basis, with at least 50 laws enacted to finetune the program. If funding laws passed between 1838 and 1979 that included money being appropriated for bounties are counted too, the number becomes much larger.

The ultimate goal of bounty laws was eradication. While the realities of science and biology dictated that complete extermination was highly unlikely, that did not faze those Michigan legislators writing the laws or civilians killing targeted animals and birds for income.

Hunters and Trappers, Biologists and Conservationists

The need for the protection and management of natural resources became a higher priority for the state government in the late nineteenth century, and landmark legislation was enacted across many fronts to protect forests, land, water, and wildlife. In 1921, Michigan saw the creation of a new Department of Conservation and the repeal of several bounty laws. Because fraud had become so prevalent in the bounty programs, the state legislature, at the urging of the new department, decided that there had to be a better way.

That year, the legislature eliminated bounties and authorized the hiring of professional trappers. However, it was not an ecological awareness revolution that led to those repeals--it was the ineffectiveness of the fraud-ridden bounty program. When the state replaced the bounty program with the employment of professional predatory animal trappers, methods of extermination became even more extreme, including the increased use of poisons, traps, and firearms.

The state legislature soon lost patience with the trapper program. In 1937, it declared an emergency and cited the state's police powers to address the wolf "emergency" that it believed existed. Bounties, too, were once again imposed. Wolves remained in the bounty bullseye until 1960, when a new law ending more than a century of aggressive killing took effect.

In the 1950s, the science of wildlife management became more sophisticated and the subtleties of wildlife populations were made clearer. That paradigm shift was without a doubt largely the result of the work and teachings of two renowned conservationists--naturalist and author Aldo Leopold and P.S. Lovejoy, the first game division chief of the Michigan Department of Conservation--who brought innovation, research, and science to the management of land and wildlife.

After World War II, college graduates working as biologists for the Department of Conservation began to change how bounties and man's relationship with nature were viewed. Applying scientific method to broad predator-prey issues, they found little correlation between predator control programs and game animal and bird populations. Credible research showed that, due to outside factors, small game numbers sometimes went up even as fox populations increased, and they occasionally decreased even as predator populations declined.

In a final analysis, the biologists found that bounties were largely ineffective at achieving their goals of lowering predator numbers and increasing game animal and bird populations. Bounties seemed to have little effect other than siphoning money away from the Department of Conservation's budget--money that could be better spent for habitat improvement, personnel, and equipment.

For much of the twentieth century, bounty payments came from the very funds meant to support wildlife populations through habitat enhancement and enforcement of wildlife protection laws. A large portion of bounty expenses came from the Fish and Game Protection Fund and the Law Enforcement Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. In some years, such as 1977, the state legislature appropriated more money to cover coyote bounties than to purchase equipment and supplies for the force of about 200 conservation officers.

During that time, the concept of bounties in Michigan was quickly falling out of favor and fraud had become too rampant to ignore. Bounties on foxes and bobcats ended in 1965, and attitudes on coyote bounties, too, began to change in the 1970s. While several legislative attempts to eliminate coyote bounties were made, U.P. legislators in opposition were successful in maintaining the bounty until the very end of the decade. Finally, Governor William G. Milliken signed Act 7 into law in 1979, terminating the bounty on coyotes and effectively ending the last active state bounty program in Michigan.

Reflecting on Michigan's Wildlife Bounties

The cost of Michigan's bounty program from 1837 to 1979 is impossible to calculate accurately. Only bounty certificates and annual reports filed by state agencies can be researched. In addition, there was no central point to record and calculate the many payments by local units of government such as townships, villages, cities, and counties for "noxious animals and birds" bounties of their choice.

What can be documented with records is that at least $5 million was paid by the state of Michigan for bounties--including $4 million between 1935 and 1965 -- which could have otherwise been used for programs of proven effectiveness such as habitat improvement, education, and enforcement.

The labor costs associated with bounties based on the number of hours that local clerks, sheriff deputies, conservation officers, county commissioners, and justices of the peace invested in the administration of the program from 1837 to 1979 are also impossible to estimate. Suffice it to say that the program cost Michigan's taxpayers and license-buying hunters a very substantial amount of money while having little of the positive effect for which nearly 150 years of legislation strove.

Ironically, the idea of bounties is making a comeback in the United States due to increasing coyote populations across the country and their perceived or real impact on wildlife and domestic animals. Coyote bounties have been enacted in several states--and in those states, fraud is once again a problem.

Sometimes, controlling predation on domestic animals is necessary. The desire for healthy populations of species ranging from songbirds to deer is also ever-present. So how should society manage predators that have developed a taste for farm-raised chickens or cause excessive predation on nesting birds, small game animals, or even large fauna?

Experts believe the answer is twofold. First, focus on specific rogue predators. If a particular fox is raiding the henhouse, target that animal for removal. It is impractical and unnecessary to try to remove all foxes in the area. Second, biologists stress habitat improvement for wildlife species. Prey animals and birds who have adequate cover and food will survive a natural level of predation. Those species have, after all, persevered for millennia without human interference.

With a proper habitat, Michigan wildlife--predator and prey alike--can continue to prosper, even in the altered natural environment of the twenty-first century.

By William M. Murphy

William M. Murphy spent a career in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality. He has long been passionate about Michigan's natural and cultural history and has written five Great Lakes region travel guides.

Caption: Wolves were targeted for extermination by Michigan hunters for more than 150 years. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay.)

Caption: A taxidermied eastern wolf killed in Washtenaw County in 1907. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Wystan.)

Caption: A Northern Michigan timber wolf in Sault Ste. Marie, c. 1910. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-D4-43493.)

Caption: Cyanide canisters were used heavily by professional trapper in Michigan in the 1920s. The two spent M44 Cyanide Device cannisters pictured belong to Dr. Russ Mason, chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Caption: The red fox, which was targeted by Michigan bounty hunters for its role in preying on small game animals. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay.)

Caption: When Governor William G. Milliken signed Act 7 into law in 1979, he ended the last active state bounty program in Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, POS6-US, no. 946.)

Caption: The coyote, which has been targeted by Michigan bounties in the past. Today, coyote bounties exist in several states throughout the country. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay.)

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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Author:Murphy, William M.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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