A lone wolf frequenting the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area is at risk from a small group of irresponsible dog owners.
"We've had people out here trying to breed their dogs with the wolf, playing ball with it, trying to feed it - it's gotten really bad in recent weeks," said Michelle Warrenchuk, a U.S. Forest Service naturalist and interpreter at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. "It's becoming habituated."
"We had an incident last Sunday with five people and five dogs," she added. "It's not just one or two people, and it's happening on a regular basis."
Warrenchuk and others are concerned for the wolf and for people in the area. Diseases and parasites can pass between dogs and wolves, and wolves that become habituated to people and food are far more likely to bite people than wolves that are left alone.
Larry Musarra, director of the visitor center, said the situation is similar to problems he faces seasonally with people and bears.
"Some people are being irresponsible -we see the same thing in the summer with bears," he said. "People want to run after bears. They try to feed them. But most people are responsible."
Several weeks ago visitor center staff arrived to find dog food spread out between the parking lot and the center. There has also been evidence of dog food in the scat of the wolf. The Forests Service is responsible for enforcement in the recreation area, but has shown reluctance to cite anyone for harassing or feeding wildlife.
State wildlife biologist Mark McNay has studied hundreds of wolves in dozens of packs in his career. McNay has also examined numerous encounters between people and wolves, and in 2002 he wrote, "A Case History of Wolf-Human Encounters in Alaska and Canada," detailing 80 encounters and 39 attacks.
McNay found the most serious attacks came from wolves that had grown used to people.
In 1987 a 16-year-old girl was bitten by a wolf in Algonquin Park, Ontario, the first of five incidents between 1987 and 1998 in which habituated wolves bit people. In all cases the wolves had established regular patterns of fearless behavior before the biting incidents occurred.
During construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline in the mid-1970s, wolves commonly received handouts from pipeline workers and truck drivers. There were 10 incidents of wolves biting pipeline workers in this time. In many cases these were not unprovoked attacks as much as food-conditioned wolves becoming dangerously demanding, literally biting the hands that had fed them.
The most recent wolf attack in Alaska occurred in April 2000 at a logging camp in Icy Bay, near Yakutat. People in the area had been seen feeding wolves, and this wolf had been seen repeatedly around the logging camp. In the days leading up to the attack it had shown increasingly fearless behavior.
A 6-year-old boy and his friend were playing together when the wolf attacked, chased the boy, bit him repeatedly, picked him up and began dragging him into the woods. People who witnessed the incident reported that when wolf dropped the boy in an attempt to get a better grip, a dog charged in between the wolf and the child. The boy's father shot the wolf a few minutes later.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Neil Barten is concerned about the situation developing at the Mendenhall Glacier.
"I think it's a problem," he said. "If an animal becomes comfortable with people and pets, in the end, the wolf is going to lose. A wolf maintaining close proximity to people is not a good thing. It's getting progressively worse, and eventually it could lead to it grabbing a pet or biting someone."
That will force officials to shoot the wolf.
Barten appreciates that people are thrilled to see this animal, but advises folks to watch the wolf from a distance with binoculars. Warrenchuk said it would be best for the wolf if people walked their dogs elsewhere in the coming weeks.
Warrenchuk has repeatedly seen people encourage their dogs to interact with the wolf. Three weeks ago she watched a couple attempting to send their dog after the wolf. When she asked them to leash their dog, they told her they wanted their dog to breed with the wolf.
She said several weeks ago a man was playing with a tennis ball with his dog when the wolf approached them. He managed to engage the wolf in the game.
"So now you've got mouth and saliva contact with his dog and the wolf," Warrenchuk said.
A variety of diseases and parasites can be transmitted between dogs and wolves. Lice showed up in Kenai Peninsula wolves in the early 1980s and spread through the wolf population there. Lice are not indigenous to Alaska, and biologists think lice spread to the wolves through contact with dogs. Lice then spread to wolves in the Mat-Su, and biologists speculate that dogs or migrating wolves carried the lice north.
Juneau veterinarian Lesley De Krey said that mange always is a threat from wild animals. Mange is spread by mites, tiny bugs related to spiders, and causes hair loss and compulsive scratching. With scabies, the worst form of mange, animals scratch bald patches and suffer from oozing sores, which often infect.
De Krey said there is also the risk of internal parasites being transmitted, in particular echinococcus, an intestinal worm that causes internal cysts, and mesocestoides, a kind of intestinal tapeworm.
Wildlife photographer and documentary filmmaker Joel Bennett has been dropping by the glacier several times a week for months, and has seen the wolf dozens of times. He said hundreds of people have enjoyed watching the wolf responsibly from a safe distance, and people just need to keep their dogs under close control and not feed it.
"If anyone is crazy enough to let their dog run up to a wild animal, whether it's a bear, a wolf or a land otter, it's not good," he said. "This is about managing people, not the wolf."
Riley Woodford works for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For comments or questions, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more about Alaska's wildlife, see www.wildlifenews.alaska.gov
If approached or followed by a wolf
Leash all dogs.
Keep small children close to an adult.
If a wolf continues to follow, haze it like you would to scare a bear off a trail, yell at it, "Hey wolf go away! Move on!" Wave your arms in the air while doing this.
Leave the area. Do not run from the wolf.
At the Mendenhall Glacier
Watch the wolf from a distance and use binoculars instead of approaching the wolf.
Keep your pet on a leash.
If the wolf approaches, leave the area and avoid interacting with it.
If you observe others harassing or interacting with the wolf call USFS enforcement at 790-7429 or 790-7430.