By ERIK MOLVAR
A recent poll by Colorado State University found that 84 percent of Coloradans plan to vote to reintroduce wolves to western Colorado under Proposition 107 this November. It’s not just a Front Range thing; support for reintroduction runs at 80% on the Western Slope and 79% on the Eastern Plains. Let’s face it, Coloradans — all over the state — love wolves. With all those wolf lovers, are there safety issues?
Contrary to the absurd and hyperbolic fearmongering from livestock industry mouthpieces like Greg Walcher, wolves pose basically zero risk to human life and safety. You just can’t get close enough to catch anything. That’s why transmission of diseases from wild wolves to humans is essentially unheard of. Moreover, while wolves are larger than most domestic dogs, wolf attacks are extremely rare because wolves are so shy and fearful of people that they typically run away before they are even spotted. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that wolves are a minimal threat to livestock, less of a threat than lightning strikes.
Let me share a personal illustration of how safe wolves are around people. In the autumn of 1991, I was hunting moose in the Alaska Range, across the Nenana River from Denali National Park. As I stalked through a clearing in the white spruce trees, a couple of foxes jumped up from the brushy tundra and scampered down the slope. After I continued, they set up a pitiful, sporadic howling — yodeling, really — perhaps 20 yards downhill. It turns out the “foxes” were wolves, pups of the year. Then, from 30 yards uphill, came the deep-throated howls of the pack. I had wolves in stereo. I paused to turn completely around, burning every sight, sound, and smell into my memory. Now, getting between large predators and their young can be a life-threatening situation. But, as an Alaskan wildlife biologist, I knew that with wolves there was no real danger. And indeed, the pack made no move to threaten me in any way. All I suffered was a beautiful memory, which I’ll take to my grave.
But for those still nervous about wolves, here are some safety tips from the perspective of someone who’s lived most of his life in the strongholds of this beautiful animal.
First, when kissing wolves, don’t use your tongue. This applies equally to domestic dogs, because animals can occasionally carry germs or parasites transmissible to humans. While the chances of approaching close enough to a wolf to kiss it at all are virtually zero, don’t even try.
Second, and this should be obvious, don’t eat wolf turds. In fact, don’t eat turds of any kind. You never know what decomposers might be present that could make you sick. And despite never having tried this myself, I would venture a confident prediction that it would give you bad breath in the bargain.
Third, practice social distancing. There is absolutely zero evidence so far that wild wolves could catch COVID-19 from humans, much less transmit this disease back to us. You simply won’t be able to get close enough, and that’s a good thing. But when people spot wolves in Yellowstone National Park, they sometimes crowd together, whipping out their spotting scopes and telephoto lenses, and crowd together. Sometimes they even kiss each other. To avoid disease risks, stay at least 6 feet away from humans (unless you’re “bubbling” together), and wear a protective mask over your mouth and nose. As for wolves, they need even more social distance: Give them more than 100 yards of space, and avoid disturbing them.
To be clear, wolves are wild animals and should be treated with respect. Over the past 80 years, only two people were killed by wolves in all of North America, and two more died after bites from rabid wolves. That’s 0.05 deaths per year, throughout the entire continent. By contrast, domestic dogs typically kill 28 people in the United States each year. Cattle kill an average of 20 people a year in the U.S., typically by kicking or trampling. That doesn’t even count fatalities from cattle-caused highway crashes. Cattle obviously pose the bigger risk to health and human safety.
With these simple pointers, you should be able to enjoy visits to today’s wolf country with minimal worry or risk. And these tips will work in Colorado, too, after we restore the missing howl of the wolf to our wild mountains.
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist published on the effects of wolf and grizzly predation risk on moose behavior, and is executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.