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Big Bad Wolves?

On their own and with help from the government, wolves are reclaiming their former range. Should you worry?

The wolf was 20 yards away and closing in, but the man behind the camera tripod didn’t seem worried. As a seasonal ranger in Alaska’s Denali National Park for more than 14 years, Rick McIntyre has seen his share of wolves-more than 500 sightings at last count, and many of those at close range.

“I’ve never had any feelings of danger or concern for my personal safety when in the company of wolves,” says McIntyre, author of A Society of Wolves. “In a place like Denali where they aren’t hunted or harassed, wolves see humans as neutral objects, not as potential prey or as enemies. Most often if I just stand there not doing anything unusual, they simply move on their way with bored expressions on their faces.” That’s exactly what this wolf did, not even looking back at the sound of the camera clicking.

Was McIntyre courting disaster, playing some wilderness version of “chicken,” or does he know something most of us don’t? Listen to other experts:

  • “There is no basis for the belief that healthy, wild wolves in North America are of any danger to human beings.” That from L. David Mech, a wolf biologist at the National Biological Survey in St. Paul, Minnesota, and considered one of the world’s leading authorities on wolves.
  • “There has never been a documented case of a healthy wild wolf killing anyone in North America.” A comment from Mark Kwan, former wolf curator at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota.
  • Over and over experts voice the refrain to a wary public that Canis lupus poses no danger. Still, fear persists, deeply rooted in folk tales, children’s fables, campfire stories, and movie lore. It’s fed by just enough facts-documented and undocumented-to keep us guessing when we’re in the outback and hear a rustle in the bushes or a howl at night.

A few campfire goosebumps never hurt anybody; unfortunately-at least when it comes to predators and their re-introduction to historic ranges-irrational fear influences and warps public policy debate. For instance, during hearings on the proposed reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, plenty of people expressed deep concern for the safety of park visitors. A survey found that nearly 20 percent of respondents said they would be afraid to hike in Yellowstone if wolves lived there. Another survey found many people claiming to “know” that wolves kill people. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana) predicted that if wolves were released in Yellowstone there would “be a dead child within a year.”

That kind of prophecy touches a raw nerve, but the fact remains that there has never been a documented human death caused by healthy wolves in North America. And it’s not as though humans go out of their way to avoid contact. Each year millions put themselves in prime wolf territory in such places as Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Michigan’s Isle Royale and Alaska’s Denali national parks, and Jasper National Park, Canada.

People have died after being bitten by rabid wolves, although many more have died from bites by rabid dogs. Still, the disease is extremely rare in the temperate and subarctic regions that wolves inhabit today. Minnesota, with more wolves than any other state in the Lower 48, has never documented a rabid wolf.

While nobody has ever been killed during a wolf attack, there have been what researchers call “incidents”:

  • In 1978, a wolf pack surrounded a team of scientists on Canada’s Ellesmere Island and cornered them by the edge of a cliff. Despite being pelted with rocks and clods of mud, the wolves refused to back off. One wolf lunged close enough to botanist Mary Dawson to leave saliva on her cheek. Finally, the wolves trotted off to the scientist’s camp, which they tore apart.
  • In 1982, a Minnesota hunter dressed in camouflage clothing soaked in buck scent was jumped by a wolf, which broke off the attack once it realized its mistake.
  • At about 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1987, a 16 year-old girl was sitting by a campfire in the Whitefish Group Campground in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park when a wolf approached. As she shined her flashlight into its eyes, the wolf grabbed the girl’s right forearm in its mouth, but quickly let go when she screamed. The girl’s screams awakened campers, who chased the wolf away and called for medical help. Paramedics treated the girl for superficial abrasions, while rangers tracked and killed the wolf. It tested negative for rabies.

What piques biologists’ interest about such incidents is the absence of serious injury to the people involved. “If a wolf pack were really to attack a person like they attack prey,” L. David Mech has written, “the result would be instant and deadly.” Armed with 42 teeth, including canines up to two inches long and jaws capable of exerting 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch (twice that of a German shepherd), wolves are capable of bringing down musk ox, elk, caribou, and moose-animals several times their size. Rolf Peterson, a professor at Michigan Technological University in Houghton who has studied wolves for years in Isle Royale National Park, says that given all their power and efficiency as predators, “It seems unusual that wolves are the only large carnivore on our continent that don’t, on occasion, kill and eat people.”

Despite what statistics and scientists tell us regarding wolves’ restraint around humans, we may never fully overcome our fear of them. There are important reasons to try, however. “For the sake of wolves and attempts to reintroduce them to their native habitats,” says Mech, “it is vital that we put the danger in its true light.”

Hiking In Wolf Country

  • Never approach or disturb a wolf den.
  • Never approach wolves that are feeding on a carcass.
  • Keep dogs leashed and close by when in wolf country.
  • “I tell people that if they come upon a wolf in the wild, they should get their camera ready,” says Mark Kwan of the International Wolf Center (1396 Highway 169, Ely, MN 55731; 800-359-9653). “It won’t be there for long and it may be the only chance they’ll have in their lives to see such a beautiful animal.”

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