The myth of the harmless wolf

On March 9, 2010, Candice Berner, a 32 year-old special education teacher working in Chignik Lake, Alaska, went jogging at dusk on a road near town and was attacked and killed by wolves.

On October 28, 2009, Canadian folk singer Taylor Mitchell was hiking in a Provincial Park in Nova Scotia when she was attacked and killed by two coyotes, which were subsequently identified by park rangers as a wolf-coyote hybrid.

In November of 2005, college student Kenton Carnegie was hiking on a road near Points North Landing in northern Saskatchewan when he was attacked and killed by wolves. There was some dispute over whether Carnegie was killed by wolves or a bear, but a provincial inquest found that wolves were responsible.

The attacking wolves in these three incidents were not rabid.

Because more than 90 percent of the population lives in urban areas and relies heavily on electronic screens to get information, most people today form opinions based on books, films and what people say.

For decades we have been told and taught that wolves have never attacked people in North America. The Internet Movie Database lists over 150 film and TV titles with the words "wolf" or "wolves." There was only one found about wolf attacks: "The Man-Eating Wolves of Gysinge" (2005), a TV drama based on the true story of a wolf that terrorized a rural Swedish community and kills 10 children.


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We've also been told that children's fairy tales about the "Big Bad Wolf" were created to keep children home at night, and do not paint a realistic portrait of wolves.

Some light on wolf-human encounters was shed in 2002 when Alaskan wildlife biologist Mark McNay published a report of a two-year study documenting 80 aggressive encounters between wolves and people in North America in the 20th century.

In only 12 of the attacks were the wolves rabid. Since McNay's report came out there have been three fatal attacks by healthy wolves, and an unknown number of non-fatal aggressive encounters and attacks on people and their pets in the U.S. and Canada. So what's up?

"In Wolves In Russia," Will Graves reports on a long history of wolf attacks on people in Eurasia, especially Russia, Pakistan, India and Kazakhastan, including thousands of fatal ones. Have Siberian wolves sneaked across the Bering Sea ice in winter and turned our harmless wolves into bad guys?

People were killed by wolves in North America before the 20th century. The appearance of people with firearms led to the demise of wolves in the Lower 48 as there was concentrated effort to eradicate Canis lupus. More than two million wolves were killed in the process.

Not nearly as many people in Eurasia are armed. As Graves points out, in Russia the populace was kept unarmed to prevent revolutions and reports of wolf killings were also suppressed to keep people from demanding to be armed. Our perspective on wolves is based on our experience, which is different from people abroad. All three peopled recently killed by wolves were unarmed.

Some perspective
There are an estimated 750,000 black bears in the U.S. According to Dr. Gary Alt, they operate as lone individuals and kill an average 1-2 people a year, primarily with the intent of predation. There are less than 1,000 grizzlies in the lower 48. They also kill an occasional human. Grizzlies primarily attack in defense of food and cubs.

There are an estimated 50,000 mountain lions in the U.S. They occasionally kill a human, but cougars are typically solo hunters that shy away from people, unless they run out of food and/or have never been hunted.

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

There are at least 6,000 wolves in the Northern Rockies and Northern Great Lakes states, 40,000 to 50,000 wolves in Canada and 7,700 to 11,200 in Alaska — 65,000-70,000 wolves for all of North America.

Wolves live in wild places, where there are few people, at least until recently. In recent years, especially since Canadian wolves were released into the Northern Rockies in 1995, the North American wolf population has doubled. Elk and deer herds have been dramatically reduced in some areas.

In 1995, when wolves were first re-introduced to the Northern Rockies, there were 19,000 elk in the Northern Yellowstone herd. By 2008, the herd was reduced to 6,000. Current estimates place the herd at less than 5,000. The moose herd in that area has dropped below 1,000.

Similarly, in 1994 there were 9,729 elk in District 10 of the Lolo Basin in Idaho, and 3,832 in District 12. By 2010, the elk herd in District 10 had plummeted to 1,473, and in District 12 in 2010 there were 705.

Such dramatic declines have moved the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to move from a position of what RMEF President David Allen describes was "sitting on the fence about wolves," to its present stance, which favors "managing wolves like other predators, because their population numbers have soared way over the benchmark goals of the re-introduction as elk herds have declined by 80 percent or more in certain areas of the Northern Rockies."

A recent study by Mark Collinge of the USDA APHIS Wildlife Services office in Boise, Idaho, finds "that individual wolves are much more likely to prey on livestock than are individuals of any other predator species in Idaho."

As wild prey declines, wolves will look for food elsewhere.

Noted Canadian wildlife biologist Dr. Valerius Geist finds that wolves (and coyotes, too) constantly test boundaries as they look for their next meal.

When normal prey is scarce, and they aren't challenged by people, both wild canids progressively move closer and closer — preying on livestock, pets, garbage, etc. until they experiment with humans as food. "Habituation," it's called. It spells "trouble."

Unfortunately, there has not been a follow-up study of wolf attacks on people like Mark McNay's, which concluded in 2002, but reports of attacks and aggressive encounters by wolves on livestock, wildlife, pets and people are either receiving better reporting, or the numbers are increasing. One recent incident involved a pack of wolves killing a mountain lion within sight of downtown Sun Valley, Idaho. Presumably these are the same wolves that have been seen prowling the streets of Sun Valley at night.

How should we view wolves?

Wolves are ancestors of dogs, but they are a very different species. There are 75 million dogs in the U.S. The CDC "Dog Bite: Fact Sheet" says that each year, 4.7 million Americans are bitten by domestic dogs, and as many as 50 Americans die every year from dog attacks.

However, 75 percent of the attacks and more than 50 percent of the fatal attacks are by three breeds — pit bull, presa canario, and rottweiler — all bred for aggressiveness. Most importantly, dog attacks are defensive, unless the dogs have been bred to attack.

Healthy wolf attacks on people almost always are predatory and/or for pleasure, unless they are defending their food. Wolves enjoy killing. It's well-documented that on occasion they will run amok among herds of livestock, deer and elk, killing as many as they can, not eating their prey.

David Allen of RMEF, Don Peay of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and Steve Alder from Idaho for Wildlife, all cite numerous examples of wolves attacking and killing large numbers of elk and livestock and not touching the carcasses as food. All three organizational leaders add that the elk killed by wolves are not just the sick, lame or aging, but very often healthy elk, especially calves and yearlings.

When wolves run out of food, or feel their territories have been invaded, they kill and eat each other — or they look elsewhere for territory.

Wolves resonate with a very deep primordial part of our soul, a place that we visit in dreams, where we see symbols that have the same shapes as nature. These symbols Carl Jung called "archetypes" — the basic building blocks of our psyche. Jung, and his student James Hillman, assert that every archetypal symbol has both positive and negative sides.

The Blackfoot Indians understand archetypes in their interpretation of the wolf. Alvin Yellow Owl, a Blackfoot hunting guide from Montana, tells me that wolves are one of the sacred animals of the Blackfoot Beaver Bundle, and the elders teach to respect the wolf, for he is a good hunter. However, the elders also teach to never trust the wolf (or the coyote), for he can turn on his own kind, as well as anything else, and kill it.

If you should meet a wolf

As wolf populations grow across North America, wolves are testing boundaries; visiting the suburbs of Minneapolis and walking the streets of Sun Valley, Idaho. The four wolf packs living around Anchorage have attacked dogs and people walking them. In Yellowstone National Park, where visitors line the roads to take pictures of wolves, last fall a wolf was shot by rangers because it was chasing bicyclists.

As wolves come into closer contact with people, the chances of bad things happening increases, especially if we approach wolves naively.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment advises bear hunters that "Dogs used for hunting bear are at risk of being attacked by wolves."

If you are out hunting and you're using a predator call, be careful. Recently, one Idaho hunter was wailing on a dying rabbit call to draw in coyotes while his son was about 100 yards away. A pack of wolves came in and surrounded his son. The father and son had a very tough time driving away the wolves.

Wolf biologist David Mech advises people to never feed wolves and/or allow them to become habituated. He says that if you meet a wolf, do not run away — yell, look as big as you can, throw rocks. Pepper spray helps. The sound of a gun will let them know you mean business.

You can kill a wolf that is attacking you or someone else, but if it's after your pets or livestock, what you can do legally varies from state to state. If a wolf does attack your pets or livestock, take pictures and report it. Since wolves were introduced into the Northern Rockies in 1995, more than 1,000 have been killed by animal control.

Hunting wolves, which has never stopped in Canada and Alaska, began in the fall of 2009 in Idaho and Montana, when wolves were taken off the Endangered Species list and management was given to those two states. David Mech recently has said that regulated hunting of wolves is not a threat to the species survival. Wolves no know political boundaries. They are here to stay.

Wolves are smart, prolific, and adapt quickly. Mech says that so long as there is adequate food and habitat it's necessary to kill off between 28 and 53 percent in an area just to keep that wolf population stable. In 2009, hunters killed 22 percent of the wolves in Idaho and 14 percent of the wolves in Montana.

Cal Grown, Director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, says that declining elk populations in the state could lead to more liberal wolf hunting seasons in 2010. This will cause some people to howl, but will it threaten the survival of wolves?

"If the animal rights folks were truly just concerned about wildlife diversity they would leave the sportsmen and the states alone to manage the wildlife, including wolves. The U.S. has had the most successful wildlife model in the world for a century and it is due in large part to the American sportsmen. But I don't believe that wildlife diversity is really their agenda or end goal; anti-hunting is their agenda," says David Allen.

There are efforts afoot to return wolves in the Northern Rockies to the Endangered Species list. If you would like to voice your support to continue delisting wolves, a new website has been established, www.biggameforever.org, that will have an online petition. The goal is getting 100,000 signatures.

Efforts are under way to establish and/or build up wolf populations in the Southeast, the Southwest, the Great Lakes and New England. There also are releases by individuals — people can't handle the wolf puppy they bought for a pet and let it go, or purposeful releases. At least two wolves have been caught in Mendocino County California in the last year by animal control trappers.

As these populations grow, our attitudes toward wolves need to be realistic. Co-existence between man and wolf is new to both species in the lower 48. We should enter into this relationship following Blackfoot wisdom for relating to wolves — respect, admire them, but do not trust them to be like to warm, cuddly, animals you see on TV. And at all costs, avoid habituating wolves.

So, if you meet a wolf in the woods, cry "wolf!" and protect yourself. And don't stop reading "Little Red Riding Hood," "Three Little Pigs," and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" to your kids. Someday, it might just save their lives.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.