Wolves: Violent? Yes Threat? No

Danger to human life pivotal to debate on wolf control measure

Posted: Thursday, November 02, 2000

A wildlife biologist told the state game board Wednesday the notion wolves never attack humans is wrong.

Mark McNay, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the panel should examine past instances of wolf aggression when considering proposals to manage the animals in areas where they come into contact with people.

Although case history shows wolves can be aggressive toward humans, actual attacks are very rare, he said. And McNay said wolves don't pose a serious threat to human life.

"Have they actually bitten people? Have they been a problem in some contexts? The answer to that is yes but rarely," McNay said at the Alaska Board of Game meeting, scheduled to run through next week at Juneau's Westmark Baranof hotel.

The question of whether wolves pose a threat to human life became a campaign issue after a wolf attacked a 6-year-old boy near

Yakutat in April, biting him three times. Proponents of more aggressive predator control have pointed to the attack saying wolves have become a threat to life and property. They've used the argument in efforts to defeat a measure on the November ballot, which would ban same-day-airborne hunting of wolves.

"Here is (an attack) that actually happened that showed the other side of wildlife management," said Jesse Vanderzanden, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, a group campaigning to defeat the ballot measure.

But McNay told the game board such aggressive attacks are rare and there are no known cases of a healthy wolf killing a person.

He made the comments after analyzing 28 documented cases of wolf aggression toward people in Alaska and Canada. Five incidents involved wolves with rabies or thought to be rabid. Of the remaining 23, McNay's preliminary findings show the most serious attacks came from wolves that had grown used to people. In 10 cases, wolves habituated to humans aggressively bit people in parks, recreational sites or industrial areas, such as logging camps.

His findings show wolves that were not used to humans in three cases attacked one adult and two children in remote areas, but in nine other human encounters, the wild animals did not bite.

"Most often those involved a rapid approach or a false charge, primarily in defense of dens or rendezvous sites" McNay said.

Most of the cases analyzed in the study happened after the 1960s. But one instance dates to 1890 and another to 1915. Walter Sampson, a Kotzebue game board member, said his grandfather was attacked by a wolf and Sampson wondered why the study didn't include that case.

McNay said it was difficult to include all instances of wolf aggression toward people because victims don't always report the encounters. He said many of the examples he analyzed were documented by scientists who had aggressive encounters with wolves. He said he's still trying to track down other cases to include in a final report.

But wildlife activist Joel Bennett said the fact the department could find only 28 examples of aggressive wolf behavior in Alaska and Canada supports his argument that wolf attacks on people are so rare they are a non-issue.

"I'd say if there were a dozen wolf attacks (a year), that would begin to wake people up," said Bennett, a sponsor of the ballot measure to ban same-day-airborne hunting of wolves.

At least two hunting guides in the audience agreed wolves do not pose a serious threat to human life. Jim Harrower, a guide from Anchorage, said his concern is the threat the predators pose to moose and caribou, not people.

"They may be a threat to my dogs at some point, but I don't think they're a threat to me," Harrower said.

"I think they're much more of a threat to other resources," said Rob Jones, also a hunting guide from Anchorage. "Not necessarily the life of people, but the resources some people use."

The April attack near Yakutat is the focus of an ad campaign to defeat the ballot measure. But Vanderzanden of the Alaska Outdoor Council said the group is not implying such attacks could happen often.

"No one is saying it could frequently happen none of us have said that," Vanderzanden said. "But the fact it did happen means it is a legitimate concern."

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