Wolf country

Posted: Friday, May 28, 2010

At 3:30 a.m. Tuesday morning Sunny Point resident Nena LeBlanc came face to face with what local residents have dubbed the "white wolf."

"We just stared at each other for about two minutes. I didn't feel threatened," she said.

It was a story many in the community can now echo - a sighting, an encounter, a run-in with a seemingly fearless wild animal.

That same night Sabrina Bishop and her husband also had an encounter with a gray-colored wolf. Their story, however, is not as calm.

"It was scary," Bishop said.

The couple's late-night outing near the Mendenhall Glacier turned worrisome when they saw a wolf-looking animal trotting behind a man walking his dogs.

"His head was down, it would pant, then stop," she said. "It just kept going after the guy. We were in our car, honking, screaming, but it kept getting closer ... it didn't seem normal."

In an e-mail Bishop admitted what she saw may have been a coyote, but she couldn't be sure.

It's stories like this that have residents worried.

Bishop has six young children and now fears for their safety. She's stopped walking her dogs on Arctic Circle, near the family's residence, where others in the neighborhood have seen the light-colored wolf.

Nick Jans, an award winning author and professional nature photographer, said he's been around wolves many times. He said having packs in and around Juneau is not uncommon. Jans said they frequent the ridgelines above town, where travel is easy and contact with humans is rare. According to him, that's the way truly wild wolves like it.

"They fall under the myth of the 'big bad wolf,'" he said. "But they don't recognize us as (food). Attacks - not killings - are linked to wolves expecting something to eat."

That may explain the recent behavior of the "white wolf." And its behavior over the last few months has officials in the area raising eyebrows and paying close attention.

"This wolf is interesting." said Ryan Scott, area biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. "We first started hearing about an 'urban wolf' early to mid-March. At times it's in the Lemon Creek area, the glacier, out the road ... it's been seen with two other wolves ... doing what wolves do. They're moving around to find food."

But the light-colored wolf is not displaying typical wolf behavior. Scott thinks someone has been feeding it.

"I know it's been getting human food. The behavior it's exhibiting, going car to car, following people down the bike path ... it's approaching people looking for food. Unfortunately, that sets a bad stage for the wolf," he said.

He'd heard of Bishop's encounter and said they did the right thing making noise to let the animal know it's not welcome. But, he said, this animal is now habituated, which has dulled its natural reaction to such situations.

In a city surrounded by Alaska's wild, many understand and know how to act around wild animals, such as bears, but few may know exactly how to act in the presence of a wolf.

Scott said the same lessons apply with wolves as with black bears. Interaction, feeding or allowing the animal to gain access to human food is not recommended.

According to a publication produced by the ADF&G titled "Wolf Safety in Alaska," food conditioned wolves may appear quite friendly, but when repeated attempts to get food from humans fails, they can suddenly turn aggressive.

If this happens, there are absolutely things a human can do. Stay put. Lunge toward the wolf while yelling or clapping. Stare directly at the wolf without turning away. Retreat slowly while facing the wolf and acting aggressively.

Scott said concerned residents should call the Juneau Police Department who will, in turn, contact the ADF&G.

In the meantime, Scott said authorities are keeping close tabs on the "white wolf."

"We are keeping an eye on it. We're returning phone calls, documenting everything. If people have information we want to hear about it. We'll act accordingly and respond accordingly," he said.

For Jans, having wolves in and around Juneau is absolutely not cause for concern. He sees their presence as a privilege and an opportunity for locals to see a majestic animal. One they may never see again.

"There's all sorts of happy reasons to have them in the neighborhood," he said.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.



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