A wild black wolf has approached dogs and people in the Juneau area in recent weeks, raising concerns about the safety of the wolf, people and their pets.
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"We had a few reports in late September that people heard a wolf howling out near the (Mendenhall Glacier) visitor center, and shortly after that a wolf was sighted out the road, where it seems to be residing at present," said state wildlife biologist Ryan Scott. "The wolf has been getting close to pets and residences and creating potential problems."
Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game think this is the same animal that has frequented the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area the past four winters. This fall, and in past years, a black wolf has also been seen near homes in the Amalga Harbor area, around the 25 mile on Glacier Highway. Biologists suspect the animal is using the Montana Creek Valley as a travel corridor between the two areas, which are only about 10 miles apart. State wildlife biologist Neil Barten said a wolf could make that trip in just a few hours.
The unusual appearance of a wild black wolf on the frozen Mendenhall Lake in the winter of 2003 caused a stir in Juneau. The wolf, probably a young animal, was seen numerous times that winter. The wolf disappeared the following summer, and biologists suspected it moved into the high country, areas such as Heitzlman Ridge and the Nugget Creek Valley. This pattern has repeated the past four years - the wolf spends the winters around Mendenhall Lake or out the road, and disappears in the summer.
The animal is not tagged, so biologists are not positive this is the same animal. However, this behavior is so distinctive and unusual for a wild wolf that biologist believe it is the same black wolf.
Wolves are native to the Juneau area and inhabit the ridges, valleys, forests and alpine country between the Taku River and Berners Bay. A wolf pack averages about seven animals and can double in size in a year, when the dominant pair has pups. Some of the young animals are incorporated into the pack, but most disperse. They attempt to find an unoccupied territory and establish a pack of their own. Competition between wolf packs is fierce and interspecies mortality is the highest cause of death for wild wolves - members of a wolf pack will kill an intruder.
It seems likely that the Juneau black wolf initially dispersed from an area pack and discovered the Mendenhall Lake and surrounding area to be suitable "unoccupied" territory.
The wolf has a history of interacting with dogs, most of it playful romping. In a number of cases, Juneau residents encouraged their dogs to play with the wolf. Forest Service and Fish and Game officials issued warnings and posted signs advising against this. In the past three years the wolf has killed two dogs and roughed up a few others.
Scott said the reappearance of the wolf this fall has some area pet owners worried about their personal safety, as well as that of their dogs. Scott said the department appreciates their concerns. "We have talked with folks who seem to have regular visits from the wolf, provided hazing equipment and explained their rights to protect themselves as well as their property," he said.
"The department has a responsibility to the residents of Juneau and to the wolf," he said. "In addressing the situation, public safety is our highest priority. But protecting wildlife from irresponsible human behavior is also important in our management efforts."
Wolves can catch lice and canine diseases such as parvo, mange, and distemper from dogs, and then spread these diseases to other wild wolves. Barten wants to avoid the spread of disease, but he's more concerned about the wolf behaving like a wild predator.
"Wolves are potentially dangerous predators, and they can be unpredictable," he said. "When it's playing with dogs, it's in close proximity to people, and that's a potentially dangerous situation."
By keeping dogs on leashes and the wolf at a distance, the likelihood of a close encounter with a person or a dog is less likely and is best for all involved, including the wolf.
"People letting their pets interact with the wolf, reinforces the animal's behavior," he said. "People need to keep their dogs under control. Don't approach the wolf, and don't let their dogs approach it."
"Once Mendenhall Lake freezes, I suspect we'll have the wolf back on the lake," said Barten. "Don't let pets play with the wolf. We don't want pets roughed up or killed, which could lead to the demise of the wolf."
Riley Woodford is a writer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He is the editor of the online magazine, Alaska Fish and Wildlife News, and produces the Sounds Wild radio program.