Uneasy Neighbors – Wolves and People

Apr 19, 2016
Editor's Note: Today, part two of our in-depth look at the wolf issue.

As many as a million wolves once ranged over almost all of North America north of Mexico City. By 1930, they were essentially gone from the Lower 48 due to trapping, poisoning and bounty hunting. With human help, the wolf population in the US has rebounded to at least 5,500 wolves in the lower 48; 8,000-11,000 wolves in Alaska; and 60,000 wolves in Canada. The recovery of wolves in the lower 48 is a great conservation story. However, as wolf numbers have increased, the wolf has become very controversial.

My previous Outdoor Wire articlehttp://www.theoutdoorwire.com/features/230635 discussed wolf predation of wildlife and livestock. This article is my take, as an environmental psychologist, on some of the human aspects of wolf conservation.

People have a wide range of attitudes about wolves. Some say wolves are valuable predators that should be restored nation-wide; others fervently insist that anyone who doesn't love wolves is stupid, crazy or worse; others believe the wolf population should be very limited; and others assert that the only good wolf is a dead one.

One common conclusion from opinion research about wolves conducted by state natural resources agencies in Wisconsin, Washington, Utah, Michigan, and California, is the closer that people live to wolves, the less positive they are about them. As wolf populations increase, we need to know how to co-exist with wolves, because in many cases they will be our neighbors.

Close Encounters with Wolves

Wolves are predators that can eat as much as 20 pounds of meat per day. If they have access to healthy populations of deer, elk, caribou, moose, beaver and snowshoe hare, most wolves are likely to stay wild. If the food supply wanes or competition with other wolves or predators increases, they can travel as far as 600 miles, or they begin to approach livestock, and/or garbage, pets, or even people, for food, and that's where the biggest problems begin.

An Internet search for "Recent Wolf Attacks" finds many stories about wolves attacking pets in places including: Manitoulan, Ontario; Jackson Hole, WY; Ironwood, MI; Banff, BC; Goulas Ontario; Elk City, Idaho; Breed, WI; Sun Valley, ID ; 31 wolf attacks on dogs in WI in 2015; and four wolf packs in Anchorage, AK, that prefer pets to moose.

Wolves also may attack people. In 2002 Alaskan wildlife biologist Mark McNay published a study documenting 80 aggressive encounters between wolves and people in North America in the 20th century. Twelve of the attacks were by rabid wolves and 16 cases were non-rabid wolves. In juries in six of those cases were severe.http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1025&context=wolfrecovery

Since 2009, three people have been killed by wolves in North America – two in Canada and one in Alaska – all took place where garbage was nearby.

November 8, 2005, college student Kenton Carnegie was hiking on a road in northern Saskatchewan when he was attacked and killed by wolves near an open garbage pit.http://www.cbc.ca/canada/saskatchewan/story/2007/11/01/wolf-verdict.html

October 28, 2009, folk singer Taylor Mitchell was hiking in a Provincial Park in Nova Scotia when she was attacked and killed by two wild canines, which were identified as wolf-coyote hybrids – "coywolves." In a park, there's almost always some garbage present. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/outposts/2009/10/musician-taylor-mitchell-dies.html

Some wolf advocates insist that coyote-wolf hybrids shouldn't be considered wolves. According to geneticist Dr. Matt Cronin at U. Alaska Fairbanks, if wolves encounter other canines, they will befriend them, retreat, kill them or breed. As wolf populations increase, wolf-dogs and coy-wolves will increase. And hybrid wolf-canines usually have less of a pure wolf's hunting instincts.http://www.therealwolf.com/

The most recent fatal wolf attack in North American took place on March 9, 2010, when Candice Berner, a 32 year-old special education teacher working in Chignik Lake, Alaska, went jogging at dusk on a road near a garbage dump and was attacked and killed by wolves. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35913715/ns/us_news-life/

One of the attacking wolves in these three incidents were rabid.

Fatal wolf attacks happen more frequently in Eurasia, such as: from March to October 1996, wolves allegedly killed or seriously injured 64 children in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. In March and April 1997, another nine or 10 children were killed by wolves in the same area. Almost all of the children were under age 10 and had been playing around the outskirts of villages surrounded by heavy vegetation.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wolf_attacks

Siberia currently has serious wolf problems, resulting in predation on livestock and pets and attacks on people.http://siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/state-of-emergency-over-wolf-attacks-in-siberian-region/

As the wolf population in the Lower 48 increases, human-wolf encounters will increase. Two recent examples. In August of 2013, 16 year-old Noah Graham was sleeping in his sleeping bag at a campground in northern Minnesota when a wolf came up behind him and bit him on the head. The wolf's teeth left a laceration on Noah's skull that required 17 staples to close, and he had several puncture wounds behind his left ear. The animal was eventually killed. Examination showed the wolf was not rabid, but had a deformed jaw. This was the first wolf attack in Minnesota in recent times.http://www.cbsnews.com/news/teen-survives-first-confirmed-wolf-attack-in-minn/

In September of 2015 a hunter in Wisconsin who was scouting for deer, was attacked by three wolves. He had to shoot one to drive them away.http://www.americanhunter.org/articles/2015/9/30/worldwide-exclusive-wisconsin-deer-hunter-fends-off-wolves-with-walther-pk-380/

Some Perspective
Wolves aren't the only wild predatory animal that can attack people. The North American black bear population is estimated at 850,000 to 950,000. They kill an average 1-2 people a year. The majority of attacks happen in national parks, and the attacking bears are males, but black bear conflicts with people about food in rural resort areas are increasing.

There are less than 1,000 grizzly bears in the lower 48. They kill an occasional human. Grizzlies primarily attack in defense of food and cubs, or if startled.

There are an estimated 50,000 mountain lions in the US. They also occasionally kill a human, but cougars typically shy away from people, unless they run out of food.

Deer also attack and kill as many 3-4 people a year. A lot more people, over 100 a year, are killed by deer-car accidents, but there are over 30 million whitetails in the US.

Over four million Americans are bitten by domestic dogs in an average year, and 30-50 Americans/year die from these dog attacks. A number of these attacks are by feral dogs.http://survivethecomingcollapse.com/2605/how-to-survive-a-feral-dog-attack/

However, wolves don't always attack people. For example, in 1990 Jim and Jamie Dutcher built the largest fenced enclosure of its kind in Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness and spent six years in a tent camp inside the fence living with and filming a pack of wolves.https://livingwithwolves.org/ And, early in his career, wolf biologist Dr. David Mech, spent several years living among a pack of 16 wolves on Elsmere Island that never attacked him. http://www.davemech.org/books.html

When Are Wolves Most Likely To Become Dangerous to Humans?

Ethologist, Dr. Valerius Geist, former Chairman of the Department of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, spent years studying big game animals, during which time, he says he never saw a wolf, but heard some. On retirement, Geist moved to Vancouver Island, where he found himself living in the vicinity of a wolf pack. Applying his expertise in ethology, Geist recognized a habituation pattern:

  • The first stage is scarcity of wildlife due to poaching, disease, habitat loss, etc.
  • Wolves begin approaching human habitations; though limiting their visits to nocturnal hours. Their presence is usually established by barking matches with local dogs.
  • After a certain amount of time, wolves begin to frequent human habitations in daylight hours, and observe people and livestock at a distance.
  • The wolves begin acting bolder, attacking small livestock and pets during daylight. At this point the wolves don't focus on humans, but will act threateningly toward them.
  • The wolves begin attacking large-bodied livestock and may follow riders, as well as mount porches and verandas to look into windows.
  • People begin to be harassed, usually in a playful manner. The wolves will chase people over short distances and nip at them, though they will retreat if confronted.
  • Wolves begin attacking people in predatory fashion.

Geist's model, which doesn't include rabid wolves, has been published in peer-reviewed journals and confirmed by researchers in Europe, Asia and North America.http://www.vargfakta.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Geist-when-do-wolves-become-dangerous-to-humans-pt-1.pdf It has special significance to Catron County in New Mexico.

Catron County includes the Gila Wilderness, and three National Forests. Less than 20% of the county is privately-owned. The total county human population is less than 4,000, and the elk herd numbers well over 1,000. It's also home to some Mexican wolves.

Mexican wolves, the smallest subspecies of gray wolves, were once found throughout the Southwest. They were brought to the brink of extinction by bounty hunting, trapping and poisoning. By 1980, only seven Mexican wolves were believed to exist, all in Mexico. The species was declared Endangered and the USFWS began captive breeding of five wolves. By 1998 USFWS started releasing wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. In 2014 there were at least 110 wolves in the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area, that's primarily in Catron County.http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/brwrp_home.cfm

This sounds like success, but at every step of the way, wolf advocates and opponents have challenged each other and the USFWS. Wolf advocates want the USFWS to move faster and double the Mexican wolf population. Opponents charge that wolves are causing damage to pets and livestock, decreasing elk herds and threatening people. Between 1976 and 2015, eight lawsuits were filed by wolf advocates and five were filed by wolf opponents.http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/chronology.cfm

Recently, USFWS has said that inbreeding has weakened the gene pool and the wild population's long-term survival is unlikely without the introduction of new, captive-bred wolves. They want to release more wolves, but the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission opposes more federal wolf releases.http://www.abqjournal.com/660656/news/federal-agency-may-release-more-wolves-in-nm.html

There are presently about 300 Mexican wolves in captivity in 49 facilities in the US and Mexico. Before releasing them, captive wolves must be acclimated in USFWS approved facilities, such as the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, where pups grow up without contact with humans. The wolves are free to hunt wild animals that come into the pens, but few do and so the captive wolves are fed deer and elk roadkills. When these wolves are released into the wild, USFWS workers continue to supplement their diet with roadkill elk and deer carcasses that are dumped along roads as they hopefully develop predatory skills.http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/cap_manage.cfm

Jess Carey, former sheriff of Catron County and the county wolf inspector, says the resident deer and elk population of the county cannot support 100 wolves, and wolves aren't staying in wilderness areas. Instead they are approaching ranches and homes to find food.

Carey and others have compiled a list of some wolf behavior problems in Catron County from April 2006 to February 23, 2012. It includes 420 wolf-animal or wolf-human interactions, 214 on private property. During the study, the five ranches lost a total of 651 head of cattle valued at more than $382,000. 143 were confirmed wolf kills. During that same period, 29 cattle were confirmed killed by coyotes, bears and mountain lion combined.http://www.azjournal.com/2014/10/29/new-mexico-investigator-offers-stern-wolf-warning-to-arizona/ Ranchers have received compensation for wolf kills of livestock, however, only 1 in 7 wolf kills of livestock are ever found. One rancher lost 40 head of cattle due to wolf predation, but he only received compensation for three.http://www.livestockweekly.com/papers/49/whl2bradshawnmwolves.asp Several ranches in Catron County have gone out of business due to livestock losses.

Catron County wolves have also been seen: waiting beside a road for roadkills to be dumped; following kids to and from school bus stops; approaching people riding horses; following people walking or running; approaching families bringing home groceries; appearing in people's yards; killing chickens, goats, dogs and cats; breeding with dogs; defecating and creating territorial scrapes in yards; urinating on tires of parked cars; not retreating if a firearm is fired; and a pack of five wolves surrounded a 14 year-old boy, circling him for 15 minutes.

The Future for Wolves
Wolves are now found in at least 13 states and the Lower 48 population is increasing despite controlled hunting and trapping. Like them or not, wolves are here to stay. As wolf populations in the lower 48 increase, wolf-people encounters may increase. What should you do if you encounter a wolf? Yellowstone National Park, advises "Don't approach bears or wolves on foot within 100 yards … as each year park visitors are injured by wildlife when approaching too closely."https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/viewanim.htm Wolf biologist Dr. David Mech adds that if you should meet a wolf, don't run away -- yell, look as big as you can, throw rocks. Pepper spray helps. The sound of gunfire usually will drive them away.

Co-existing with wolves, their advocates and opponents, is also a people problem whose solution should begin with respectful disagreement among people with differing points of view, and mediation rather than threats and lawsuits that intensify conflicts more than solving them, and drain away millions of dollars. The Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program has been going on for over 35 years at a cost of over $20 million, or about $346,000 per wolf, according to Ted B. Lyon.http://www.therealwolf.com/

If you're interested in keeping up with news about wolves world-wide, check out the website for Wolf Education International,http://wolfeducationinternational.com/ an independent group of scientists, government workers, lawyers, writers and rural residents, familiar with the history, legal ramifications, management and science associated with wolves.

—- James A. Swan, Ph.D