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OR: Are wolves dangerous?

By Pat Valkenburg
For the Chieftain

As wolves reoccupy some of their former range in rural areas of western states and the upper Midwest, many people have become concerned about their own safety and the safety of their children and dogs. Like everything to do with wolves, there are strongly held views and misinformation is common. So, how dangerous are wolves to humans?

The short and easy answer is that most people really have very little to fear. However, there are very good reasons why our safety record with wolves in North America is exceptional, and unless people and wildlife management agencies actively work to maintain this record, wolves will pose an increasing danger to human safety.

Wolves are, by far, the most widely distributed large predator in the world and the range of the human experience with wolves in historic and prehistoric times is actually highly variable. The largest part of the wolf’s worldwide range occurs in Eurasia, much of which was in the former Soviet Union. For various reasons, including the language barrier, reliable information from this huge area was not available until relatively recently, so a clear picture of wolf-human interactions is a recent thing.

For most of the last part of the 20th century biologists were routinely telling people that there was not a single verified case of wolves killing or seriously injuring a human in North America in historic times. (Knowledgeable biologists were always careful to say “in North America” and “in historic times,” because fatal attacks by wolves were well documented in Bikhar Pradesh in India by the early 1980s, and Native American oral histories did not support this view).

However, all our complacency changed on Nov. 8, 2005, when Kenton Carnegie left a mining camp in northern Saskatchewan to go for a walk. He was attacked by a pack of wolves, killed, and partially eaten. Although there was controversy over whether wolves or bears caused his death, evidence at the scene, including wolf tracks but no confirmed bear tracks and the fact that bears were already hibernating, led a coroner’s inquest to conclude that wolves were responsible.

Then, on March 8, 2010, a school teacher, Candice Berner, left her office in a small Alaskan coastal village, also to go jogging. She, too, was killed and partially eaten by wolves (report available on Alaska Department of Fish and Game website).

These two tragic cases were a wake-up call that something about the relationship between wolves and humans in North America was changing. Some biologists had already begun to recognize the changing relationship because of a noticeable increase in non-fatal attacks and had sounded warnings about it. About five years before Carnegie’s death, Mark McNay, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, had reviewed and published accounts of increasing aggression by wolves toward humans throughout North America during the 20th century (Wildlife Society Bulletin, 2002, 30:831-843).

McNay also recommended ways to reduce wolf-human conflict. Dr. Valerius Geist (a biologist with many European and Russian contacts and professor emeritus, University of Alberta, Calgary) had also been warning people not to be complacent about safety around wolves. Biologists in Norway and Finland also reviewed cases of wolf aggression in Europe and Russia, and Will Graves, an American veterinary technician, author, and linguist, reviewed the Russian experience over the last 100 years and more (see Wolves in Russia, 2007). Therefore, at least some summaries of the Russian experience with wolves are now finally available in English.

Results of all of this most recent scientific information reveal a strikingly similar pattern in both North America and Eurasia. In short, the evidence shows that wolves are quite capable of learning when humans are not defended, and given time and opportunity, will take full advantage of the food sources that humans provide, including livestock, pets, garbage, and even humans themselves.

Certainly one of the most dramatic cases of wolves learning to take advantage of humans occurred in Russia during the 1940s and early 1950s. This case was documented by Russian biologist and author M. P. Pavlov in his book “The wolf in game management,” published in Russian in 1982. In the 1970s, Pavlov obtained a previously suppressed report on wolf problems in Russia during the 1940s and early 1950s and he interviewed people who had survived wolf attacks when they were children.

Some biologists in North America first questioned the reliability of Pavlov’s accounts because they are so different from the North American and recent European experience. A biologist I worked with at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Leonid Baskin, is certain Pavlov’s accounts of Russian wolf attacks are accurate, and biologists in North America and Europe are now taking a closer look at the Russian experience to help explain the recent increase in wolf attacks elsewhere.

Pavlov has the equivalent of a master’s degree in biological sciences and spent his career in a job akin to an agricultural extension agent or animal damage control agent. Baskin interviewed Pavlov in 2004 and obtained permission to have a chapter from Pavlov’s book (“The danger of wolves to humans”) translated and published as an appendix in Will Graves’ book. The chapter makes fascinating reading, and the similarities to recent events in North America, including those reported by McNay, are striking.

Although there were many examples of wolves attacking people in Russia before World War II, during the war wolf attacks increased significantly. Basically, the accounts reveal that wolves took a little over two years to discover that humans were no longer protected after Russia mobilized most able-bodied men and firearms to fight the Germans on the Eastern front in 1941. By 1944, wolves were brazenly entering towns, killing livestock, sleeping in village parks, and occasionally killing women and children. This behavior pattern developed in a small area in Kirov Oblast (province) at first, but by the early 1950s, man-eating wolves were present over an area of thousands of square miles in Kirov and surrounding oblasts and well over a hundred people had been attacked.

Because Russia had been so devastated by the war (12 million people killed, including 5 million soldiers with many more millions disabled), initially, there was little the government could do about the wolf problem, and like much information in Russia at the time, official reports were suppressed. After the war, it took a considerable effort and many years of hunting, trapping, and poisoning until problems with man-eating wolves were eliminated in 1953.

Recently in Alaska and northern Canada, for entirely different reasons, hints of similar behavior in wolves have begun to emerge. In most villages in northern Canada and Alaska, the trapping lifestyle is largely a thing of the past and most people no longer view wolves as valuable fur-bearing animals (even though the average pelt value continues to be about $300). Many people have become quite tolerant of wolves, until they start killing dogs or threatening people, by which time it may be too late. It is not unusual to see wolves feeding in open garbage dumps in northern Canadian villages and mining camps. In Alaska, most garbage dumps are now fenced to avoid habituating bears to garbage, but wolves routinely travel through or around many villages.

This increasing habituation of wolves to humans certainly contributed to the recent death of Kenton Carnegie and probably to the death of Candice Berner as well. In addition to these well-publicized fatal attacks, there have been many other non-fatal attacks on people or on dogs in close proximity to people that have occurred in the United States and Canada in recent years. The potential danger of habituated wolves is now very clear.

Aside from the case of habituated wolves, it is also important to realize that all wolves are individuals, and some are more prone to aggressive behavior whether habituated or not. Between 1977 and 2000, during various research projects, I was involved in the live capture of hundreds of wolves in Alaska and saw no aggressive behavior toward humans or aircraft. However, in about 2001, I watched helplessly from above as one very aggressive male charged a landed helicopter. A quick takeoff by the attentive pilot probably saved the passenger from injury. The following year, during a capture operation in the same pack, a different aggressive male leapt up and grabbed the skid of a low-flying Robinson R-22 helicopter, holding on for a few seconds. The pilot had to make an abrupt correction for the extra 130 pounds hanging onto the right skid.

People who routinely work or recreate in areas occupied by wildlife should avoid becoming complacent and be ready for the rare, aggressive individual of any large species.

In contrast to the rare cases of unhabituated, aggressive wolves, there are equally rare cases of wolves displaying friendly behavior to humans and dogs. The case of Romeo, a black male wolf who took up residence on the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska, and waited daily for people to bring their dogs to play with him, is a famous example. He was documented killing one small dog at first, but then never acted predatory or aggressive to dogs or humans again. How he obtained food was never clear. The problem with cases like this, though, is that it is difficult for many people to understand a wolf’s intentions, and there is always some chance that sudden behavior by people (especially children) or pets will trigger a predatory or aggressive response. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has produced a very informative, common-sense brochure suggesting appropriate safety behavior for people who encounter wolves. It is well worth reading.

For many reasons, the unique conditions that led to widespread man-eating behavior in wolves in Russia and India are not likely to be repeated in North America or Europe. However, isolated cases of wolf attacks on humans, including fatalities and man-eating behavior, are likely to continue to become more common in the future as wolves become more abundant and people become more tolerant and appreciative of their presence. It will be important for states to establish hunting seasons for wolves and to allow people to shoot habituated or aggressive wolves once they have been removed from state and federal endangered species lists. An open hunting season will probably be the most economical and effective way to ensure that wolves maintain a healthy respect for humans. In areas where all wildlife is protected, federal and state managers will need to be proactive in avoiding problems with habituated wolves.