Monday, September 24, 2018

Should We Fear Wolves?

I met a man recently who had relocated from Michigan to Gardiner, Montana, just outside of Yellowstone. Since both states have wolves, we discussed them. The man, large enough to be a pro-football lineman, said he often hunted deer in Michigan’s wolf country. 

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He recalled one day when he was sitting in his blind, heard wolves howl, and felt a tingle of fear. As darkness fell and he made his way to the car, wolves howled again. Hustling through the woods, he had a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other. “I’ll tell you, the hairs were up on the back of my neck, and I was ready to blast them wolves if it came to that,” he said. His fear was obvious. But was it realistic?

Recently, I again searched for an answer to the question of whether we should fear wolves. I found two documented fatal attacks by wild wolves in the past 75 years in all of North America.

In 2005 searchers recovered the body of a man in northern Saskatchewan. Two years later a jury found he had died from “injuries consistent with a wolf attack.” An investigator suspected that the attacking wolves might have lost their fear of people after eating at open garbage dumps. In 2010 the body of a woman was found along a road near a rural Alaskan community. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game—relying on DNA evidence for the first time—concluded that wolves killed her and were not defending a kill or habituated to people.

So wolves have killed two people, one in Alaska, one in Canada.  But what about in the lower 48 where that hunter—a gun in each hand—feared for his safety?

In 2011 a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said that no wolves have attacked humans in the Rocky Mountain states. A newspaper reporter investigated the claim, contacted the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, and was told that wolves have not attacked humans in the lower 48.

I have found no other reports of fatal wolf attacks since 2011. But I have come across statistics that place those two documented wolf-related fatalities in a different light.

The National Canine Research Council reported 32 fatal dog attacks on humans in 2013 and 41 the following year. In 2017, according to two other sources, there were 25 to 39 fatal dog attacks.

The Interstate Sportsman reports that 80 to 90 fatal hunting accidents occur each and every year.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that on average ten people drowned per day from 2005 to 2014.

Dog attacks, drowning, and hunting accidents claim far more lives than wolves have or ever will. Yet I don’t hear anyone demanding that we eradicate all dogs or ban hunting or swimming to protect ourselves.

The chance of wolves killing people are minuscule; there are many greater fears to worry about. That some people use the fear of attacks as a way to justify shooting wolves—as that rancher did recently to the Togo Alpha male in Washington—is another example of the incredible power of the myths and misinformation that surround these essential predators.

To learn more about wolf hatred, read my post The War on Wolves.

Photo of wolf by Bob Haarmans via CC BY 2.0 Flickr

My forthcoming book, 
The Wilds of Aging: 
A Journey of Heart and Mind

My award-winning Deep into Yellowstone can be ordered signed from me or unsigned on Amazon.

My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves can be ordered signed from me or unsigned on Amazon

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