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Are wolves a danger to humans? Experts weigh in

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By K.C. Mehaffey
The Wenatchee World

Wenatchee World article by KC Mehaffey on wolves and humans. Quotes from Conservation Northwest's Derrick Knowles.

TWISP - Everyone agrees, gray wolves are generally wary of humans.

But with the state's first pair of breeding wolves and six of their pups
roaming the foothills near Twisp, people are asking:

"Just how wary should we be of them?"

The answer is mixed, depending on whom you ask.

"You're more likely to get attacked by someone's dog while you're hiking on
a trail than you are to have a threatening contact with a wolf," said
Derrick Knowles, outreach coordinator for the environmental group
Conservation Northwest. "When you look at the real threats that are out
there, wolves are way, way down on the totem pole," he said.

Jack Field doesn't see it that way.

"There's a reason wolves were extirpated in the '30s," said Field, executive
vice president for the Washington State Cattlemen's Association.

Both Field and Knowles sit on Washington's Wolf Working Group, which has
spent the last year and a half looking into the habits of wolves and coming
up with a draft plan for how to manage and recover the endangered animal.

"That was something that was so frustrating in developing the draft plan,"
Field said. "We kept hearing that wolves don't attack people. But it sounds
like there's a confirmed (fatality attack) in Canada, and a number of quote,
unquote, close calls in Alaska," he said.

So, who's right?

Both are, according to Howard Golden, a wildlife biologist with a specialty
in research of fur-bearing animals who works for the Alaska Department of
Fish and Game. Wolves were never hunted to the point of extinction in
Alaska, and between 7,700 and 11,200 of the 100-pound canines thrive there

"Certainly, over the years, there have been interactions that weren't
positive for people," Golden said. "That said, it's pretty remarkable how
few encounters there are, considering how abundant they are. We haven't had
many issues with them compared with bears."

Golden said Mark McNay, a recently retired research biologist for his
agency, studied the issue after a wolf attacked a 6-year-old boy near Icy
Bay, Alaska, in 2000. Golden said McNay's conclusions are accepted and
well-respected by other biologists in Alaska.

McNay's paper, "A Case History of Wolf-Human Encounters in Alaska and
Canada," challenges the assumption that healthy wolves in North America pose
little threat to humans.

He compiled the cases of 80 wolf-human encounters in Alaska and Canada. The
stories range from a wolf that bit a 12-year-old boy in the face to packs of
wolves approaching campers in their tents and chewing on their belongings
after the animals had been fed leftovers.  He also points out that there
were no human deaths attributed to wild, healthy wolves since at least 1900.
The report was published in 2002.

Three years later, authorities say, Canada had its first documented wolf
death in more than a century.

Kenton Carnegie, a 22-year-old Ontario man who went for a walk in remote
Saskatchewan in November 2005, was followed and killed by a pack of wolves,
the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported. Tracks in the snow provided
evidence of a struggle and unsuccessful attempts by the man to flee,
according to the news reports. A coroner's jury decided that wolves killed
the man after hearing witnesses and experts and reviewing evidence.

Dr. Valerius Geist, an emeritus professor at the University of Calgary in
Alberta, Canada, helped investigate Carnegie's death for his family.

He said it's dangerous to believe that wolves are harmless, although they
are quite shy in most cases.

Geist agreed that wolf attacks are rare and fatalities even rarer. But the
scene quickly changes if wolves don't have plentiful game or livestock to
feed on, and if people don't have firearms to protect themselves, he said.

Geist said North American wildlife biologists have ignored centuries of
evidence from Europe and Asia that indicate wolves sometimes prey on people.

"As long as there is big game, and as long as there are livestock, wolves
are not a threat," he said. "They're extremely efficient as a predator. They
literally vacuum out an area, and when they have no more wildlife, they turn
to livestock, and then the pets and children and people that are with the

But wildlife biologists in Alaska say wolves are much more likely to go
after your dog than your child.

"It's possible for wolves to take small kids, but I don't think it's ever
happened in Alaska," Golden said.

"Wolves can be a threat. They have sharp, pointy teeth and can be a
potentially dangerous animal, just like a dog can," said Jessy Coltrane,
wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage.

But they're much more likely to go after a pet dog or cat than they are to
threaten a person - even a child, she said.

Last winter, Anchorage had some trouble with two wolf packs that frequent
the outskirts of the city. Biologists believe a lack of snow made for
difficult moose-hunting conditions, because the moose were able to get about
much more easily. They have a much harder time getting through the snow than
wolves. So the wolves improvised, and started stalking people who were out
walking their dogs.

Three women walking three dogs on leashes felt threatened by the wolves,
which would not retreat until the women used pepper spray on them, Coltrane
said. "Normally, the problem we have is wolves eating dogs that are chained
up," she added.

She advised anyone who fears coming across a wolf to carry pepper spray.

In Washington, where wolves are only beginning to repopulate after they were
virtually hunted and trapped out, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife
offers much information about the animals, including phone numbers to call
with sightings, how ranchers should treat a scene if they suspect their
livestock was killed by a wolf, and what people should do if they come
across a dead or injured wolf.

There's no mention of what to do if encountering an aggressive wolf.

"We don't feel the need at this point to have an explanation on human
safety," said Rocky Beach, manager of wildlife diversity for the Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife.

He said as with encounters with all wildlife, people should use common sense
and be cautious.

But in the overall scheme of wolf recovery, he said, "One of the more minor
challenges is that in terms of human safety."


By the numbers: Wolves and humans

Wolves in Alaska and Canada: 59,000 to 70,000

Dates of case histories: 1900 through 2000

Encounters examined: 80

◆ Aggressive encounters: 14

◆ Nonaggressive encounters: 29

◆ Testing for prey: 8

◆ Self-defense: 10

◆ Provoked aggression: 4

◆ Rabies: 12

◆ Hunting of humans: 3

Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife, 2002 report by Mark McNay


On the Web:

Mark McNay's report on wolf encounters:

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