Officials fear for Romeo

Experts worry wolf is too accustomed to humans and pets

Posted: Thursday, February 08, 2007

Romeo, Juneau's favorite lone wolf, has been having close encounters with people and their dogs, causing game experts to worry about his well-being - not to mention that of the pets.

The black wolf has been spotted on several occasions attempting to "play" with dogs and people on and around frozen Mendenhall Lake, one of his haunts.

Recent pictures circulating locally by e-mail show Romeo getting acquainted with a few local dogs, including a small light-colored pug.

In one shot, he's making off with the pug as if it were a rabbit. Subsequent photos show the pug squirming on the ice after he's been released. The little dog suffered no apparent harm.

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"In the last week there have been several stories of the wolf picking up little dogs and several stories of people touching the wolf, which isn't good," said Neil Barten, wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Reports of the wolf's behavior, and especially the behavior of the human spectators, led officials to set up signs at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center reminding people to stay clear of the wild animal.

"History has proven that when people are that close to wolves ... that's when problems happen, and nobody wants problems to happen," Barten said.

The recent interactions have led officials to discuss ways to keep humans away from the wolf and vice versa, Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin said.

"We've discussed the possibility of citations, but we want to get people sensitive to the fact that interacting with the wolf is not a good thing to do."

Alaska Bureau Of Wildlife Enforcement trooper Lt. Todd Sharp said the laws regarding "taking" an animal are complicated but could result in a violation up to $500 or even a misdemeanor resulting in a $10,000 fine and one year in jail for pursuing or disturbing a wild animal.

"It is a problem, and we don't want anybody to even have to worry about getting a citation," he said.

If the interactions continue, enforcement officials may turn to other tactics to keep the wolf at a safe distance, Griffin said.

"What we've agreed upon is doing some 'aversive conditioning' and what we want to do is get the wolf to be a little more suspicious of people ... so we're considering using a gun and beanbags or rubber bullets to get the wolf to be a little more suspicious," he said.

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Because the wolf has interacted with dogs so frequently and freely, officials also worry that he might contract diseases such as rabies or mange.

"Relocating is not an option if there is any danger of spreading any diseases," Barten said.

He did not want to speculate on what the options would be if the wolf became aggressive with dogs or humans - or decided to attack.

"We don't want to get put in that position, so that is why we are really trying to get the word out that it is a wild animal," Barten said.

Instead of showing their affection by getting close and attempting to play with Romeo, people should be sure to give him plenty of space, he said.

"If people create a buffer between themselves and the wolf, then I think it will have a much better life and we can continue to enjoy it," Barten said.

If people don't give it the room and respect a wild animal deserves, then it could lead to tragedy - most likely for the wolf - Griffin said.

"There's the danger of loving this wolf to death," he said. "We have to remember that it is a wild animal. For it to continue to survive it has to remain a wild animal."

People have a great sense of community pride regarding the wolf, and that should continue as long as people act responsibly around it, Griffin said.

"Having the wolf around, folks see that as a wonderful resource," he said.

Gordon Haber, who has studied wolves for more than 40 years in Denali, will give a Fireside Chat on the subject at 7 p.m. tonight at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. He will repeat the lecture again at 7 p.m. Friday in the same location.

Anyone witnessing worrisome behavior - either by the wolf or by people - is asked to contact Fish and Game or the Forest Service.



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