From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 1 - April 4, 2002
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

While taking a walk near her home about 5 miles south of Big Piney just off Highway 189, Sharon Costello came across a huge wolf track from which her husband Rick made this plaster cast. The track measures almost six by six inches and is complete with claws, some as thick as a man’s pinkie. According to Rick, Game Warden Brad Hovinga said this is probably one of the three wolves that have been frequenting the area, traveling back and forth between the Muddy Creek bench and Fontenelle Creek.

Danger posed by habituated wolves

by Cat Urbigkit

Danger posed by habituated wolves

In recent weeks, officials from both Fremont and Lincoln counties declared gray wolves and grizzly bears "unacceptable species," citing the danger to human health and safety as a major concern.

While the threat to human safety posed by grizzly bears is evident, what has been the subject of little discussion is the possible danger posed by wolves. This issue was recently given discussion by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks as the agency prepared its statewide wolf management plan.

"Public safety is an important consideration because species such as the gray wolf, mountain lion, black or grizzly bear are capable of injuring or potentially killing a person," according to the draft Montana wolf conservation and management plan.

A few examples were provided. The document stated: "In Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park, four different wolves progressively lost their fear of humans, resulting in five separate incidents over the last 11 years. These four wolves, though previously non-aggressive, eventually bit humans. Two incidents of wolf aggression towards people were serious and required stitches.

"Each of the wolves was accustomed to humans and had been frequenting campgrounds, running off with backpacks, human food and other camping items over a period of months," according to the document. "People interacted with these wolves at very close range until the wolf became too bold. Park managers removed the four wolves.

"Some wolves in Denali National Park in Alaska have grown increasingly tolerant of close proximity to humans in and around campsites, although no injuries have been reported.

"One incident on Vargas Island, British Columbia, in which a wolf bit a camper paralleled the incidents in Algonquin Provincial Park. Park managers removed two wolves that had been loitering near camping areas. One recent incident in Icy Bay near Anchorage, Alaska, left a young boy with several stitches after a wolf bite. This wolf was also removed.

"It appears that most wolf-human encounters were not precipitated by the wolf perceiving the human as prey because of how the wolves behaved, the presence of domestic dogs, or the sequence of events," according to the Montana document.

This is in stark contrast to mountain lion incidents, in which it appears lions have perceived humans as prey; or in bear incidents in which bears attack after surprise encounters with humans, or apparently in defense of cubs or food.

"For wolves, a loss of fear seems to be a common thread running through all North American wolf incidents resulting in human injury," the plan stated.

"It appears that wolves can habituate to humans or human activities as readily as bears or mountain lions," the document stated. "Whether or not this degree of familiarity translates to a threat to human safety may hinge on prompt management response by the appropriate authorities.

"It appears that habituation in wolves may not require a consistent pattern of food conditioning as seems the case for bears. Wolves may increase their tolerance for the close proximity of people through repeated, long-term social interaction with people and ‘being rewarded’ in some fashion, whether food or otherwise."

Interestingly, most cases of wolves inflicting injuries on humans occurred in parks or preserves where wolves were legally protected. That’s the cause of concern regarding recent incidents in Yellowstone National Park.

An early March Bozeman Chronicle article by Scott McMillion reported that wolves in Yellowstone National Park "have become increasingly bold around people and at least one pair might have scavenged a handout from a law-breaking traveler this week."

Park service officials have received reports that wolves have approached cars containing people, peering in the windows. Wolves have also walked close to people busy ‘wolf watching,’ and such encounters are reportedly becoming more common.

The park service is now prepared to take action against wolves appearing too bold towards humans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has authorized the agency to use "less-than-lethal munitions (rubber bullets)" in an attempt to aversively condition the animals into maintaining their distance.

Photo credits:  Jim Carbley

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