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Tips for a safe and fun vacation in wolf country

Jess Edberg, information services director — International Wolf Center

For many people in the United States, summer vacation means visiting new and interesting places. In the excitement of planning and packing, we sometimes forget to look at the more subtle details of our destination. Will there be cell reception? Will gas prices be significantly higher?

One often overlooked detail is what kind of wildlife are common in the area and what are the “rules of engagement” for humans interacting with wildlife.

For those who have chosen a destination where wolf populations thrive, such as Yellowstone National Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, or Denali National Park, there are a few important pieces of information that will ensure an enjoyable vacation for you and the wildlife you encounter.

Wolves are generally shy and tend to avoid humans. Wolves, however, can lose their fear of humans through habituation. Habituation occurs when an animal changes its behavior as a result of a stimulus or lack of one. For example, when someone suspends a bird feeder outside the kitchen window, the birds seeking the food are at first wary, but over time the birds grow accustomed to activity in the house and learn to tolerate the activity in exchange for free food. This change in behavior can also occur with wolves and can increase the possibility for conflict between wolves and humans.

Additionally, the mid- to late-summer months are a time when wolf pups are spending the majority of their time at an above-ground den area called a rendezvous site. This site is used by the pack to “rendezvous,” or regroup, after forays into the territory for food or other resources.

At this location, the pups can be left alone for hours and allowed to explore their surroundings up to a mile away. This type of behavior is not limited to wolves. Whitetail deer mothers routinely leave their newborn fawns hidden in foliage as they forage for food. Sometimes the doe may forage all day away from her fawn(s).

Knowing this information about wildlife behavior can help to prevent the well-intentioned but ill-informed practice of rescuing “abandoned” wildlife young.

A recent story about a wolf pup in Idaho that was mistaken for a domestic dog puppy by tourists to the area is a sobering reminder to be a well-informed visitor while vacationing in unfamiliar locations.

It is also important to be aware that our own activities and actions can influence wolf behavior. Wolves and other wildlife can be attracted to human or pet food and garbage. Storing these items securely and feeding pets indoors can prevent an unwanted campsite or cabin visitor.

Intentional feeding of wildlife can also attract wolves. Feeding deer or elk, for example, can cause these prey animals to congregate in areas near human activity, attracting wolves to the area. Additionally, if you hang birdseed or suet feeders, make sure to suspend them at least seven feet above the surface of the ground (or the snow in the winter).

Pets can also attract wolves. Dogs and cats can make easy targets for wolves and should always be supervised outdoors. If pets must be kept outdoors while you are away, keep them in a kennel with a secure top. Many vacation destinations provide a kennel service for visitors or have information on local kennel facilities to house your pet while you are sightseeing.

Additionally, the campground or recreation area you are visiting might also have rules on pets. Many, including national and state parks, require pets to be on a leash no longer than six feet. If there is no leash law, it is always a good idea to keep your pets near you and under control at all times in wolf country.

The reality is, most people will never see a wolf, let alone have a conflict with one, but if you see wolves in the wild, use caution when they are close. Like any wild animal, wolves are unpredictable, especially when they feel threatened. Never offer wolves food or entice them to come closer and never approach them. Such behaviors begin the process of habituation.

It is always prudent to give wildlife at least 100 feet of space and an escape route. If a wolf seems curious and approaches within 100 feet, make noise and/or throw objects toward the wolf. These actions should frighten the wolf and reinforce avoidance behavior toward humans.

A habituated wolf may act fearlessly (approach humans at a close distance without fear) or aggressively (growl or snarl). If you encounter a wolf that appears habituated, raise your arms and wave them in the air to make yourself look larger, and make noise and/or throw objects at the wolf. When moving away, face the wolf and back away slowly.

You should immediately report a habituated wolf to the local game warden, park or campground personnel or other local wildlife officials.

Most wolves are not dangerous to humans, and there is a greater chance of being killed by lightning, a bee sting or a car collision with a deer than being injured by a wolf. However, like bears and cougars, wolves are instinctive predators and can be unpredictable. Wolves can lose their natural shyness when they approach people, homes or cars looking for food and receive no discouragement. These bold, or habituated, wolves often must be killed to preempt them from harming humans. The documented cases of wolves injuring humans in North America typically involve wolves that became fearless of humans due to habituation.

It is the responsibility of humans to act appropriately when enjoying nature so as not to habituate wildlife. Wolves and other wildlife have strong instincts to survive and can take advantage of our carelessness with trash, pets or food. Ensure your summer vacation is a positive one by becoming well informed.

For more helpful tips on visiting or living in wolf country, take a peek at the resources below. Have a great summer!

Related links

Wolves and Humans informational series
Idaho wolf pup finds new home