The recent Juneau Empire article entitled "The Black Wolf Returns For its Winter Visit" (by Riley Woodford on Dec. 2), is a timely reminder of the vulnerability of this magnificent animal. He has returned for a fifth winter season, thus some may take for granted this truly unique situation. For many people this represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view a wild wolf. I want to remind everyone that allowing our dogs to interact with the wolf puts him at considerable risk.
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I first saw the black wolf one year ago on Christmas Eve, while cross country skiing on the frozen surface of Mendenhall Lake with my wife Sue. The wolf loped up from behind us, silently and seemingly from nowhere. True to the stories we had heard, he briefly greeted our dog and even performed a play bow before drifting away across the ice. I encountered the wolf many times that winter, and though I generally avoided approaching him, I did not discourage his brief greetings with my dog. As the winter progressed, it became clear that increasing numbers of people were actively encouraging their dogs to interact with the wolf. I also saw photographers approach him, sometimes displacing him from a resting place and even pursuing him as he moved away.
Becoming uncomfortable with the accelerating wolf/dog habituation problem, I eventually found that by simply leashing my dog when the wolf was in the area I could discourage close contact. Yet it remained possible to enjoy viewing the wolf from a more reasonable distance. Unfortunately, toward the end of the season, an unleashed Pomeranian was killed by the wolf in Mendenhall Lake Recreation Area. Additionally, on two separate occasions, unleashed pugs were picked up and dropped unharmed back onto the ice. One can hardly fault the wolf for having his hunting instincts triggered by a free ranging five-pound Pomeranian. Nor can one blame the wolf for engaging in a little pug ice hockey. He didn't stalk the pugs: The pugs were presented to him by their owners.
Clearly, this is a people problem, not a wolf problem. This is evident from the toy breed incidents described above, but the problem extends beyond that. Some blame must also lie with any of us who continue to encourage dogs to interact with the wolf for the selfish purpose of a close glimpse or a good photograph. As Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Neil Barten said, by encouraging dog/wolf interactions we are reinforcing the wolf's habituation to dogs and people, and therefore creating potentially volatile situations.
A reliable source recently informed me that Fish and Game biologists are prepared to intervene by capturing, radio-collaring and relocating the wolf to a distant location should another "incident" occur. I see this plan as a very poor option for the wolf and those who enjoy safely observing him. As a veterinarian, I know that there is significant risk of injury or death to animals subjected to stressful capture and anesthesia under challenging field conditions. I also fear that introducing the wolf to a new territory would increase his risk of being hunted or trapped.
State wildlife biologist Ryan Scott has stated, "The wolf has been getting close to pets and residences and creating potential problems," and "some area pet owners are concerned about their personal safety as well as that of their dogs." This wolf has not shown any aggressive behavior toward people in his five year local residence.
People must take responsibility for controlling their pets if they are worried about the safety of their dogs. Rather than attracting the wolf into their yards with loose or tethered dogs, unattended dogs in the wolf's territory need to be confined indoors or behind a fence. I would also like to see Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service step up enforcement of existing regulations prohibiting closely approaching the wolf. I believe this wolf's best option for survival is for us to simply allow him to live his life, and not actively encourage habituation. It's time for us to wake up and accept our responsibilities for maintaining the wolf's continued safety. Hopefully it's not already too late.
Vic Walker is a veterinarian and Juneau resident.