Are Wolves a Danger to People?

On Science

The Jasper Fitzhugh

November 8, 2012


In the past year and a half, the Jasper National Park Pyramid Wolf Pack has killed two off-leash dogs, aggressively approached others (both on-leash and off) and most recently attacked a leashed dog as the owner attempted to defend it with bear spray.

I have said to others that this is “highly unusual behavior for wolves,” because this is what the general consensus was when I did my biology degree almost two decades ago. I may have been partially right: a wolf attacking a leashed dog beside its master is certainly more unusual than a wolf attacking an off-leash dog, or any other member of the Canid family for that matter. They will take necessary opportunities to feed themselves and their pack. But to say aggressive behavior toward people and their pets is highly unusual behavior isn’t quite right either.

When I was a biology student in the early ‘90s, what we knew of wolf behavior was based largely on observations recorded in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, when biologists concluded that healthy, free-ranging wolves posed little or no threat to human safety. In 2002, Mark McNay, a now retired biologist from Alaska, penned an oft referred to report in which he suggests these observations were made during a cycle of low wolf populations.

Indeed, in the late 1800’s wolves were still the most widely distributed mammals in North America. But once Europeans began to settle the continent, wolves quickly lost ground. Agriculture, aggressive hunting, poisoning campaigns, and in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, government-sanctioned wolf-control programs, ensured the extirpation of wolves from large portions of Canada. The U.S. was hit harder – very few, isolated packs persisted in the lower 48 states.

With wolves at low numbers, there was very little record of wolf aggression toward people in Canada and Alaska. Some researchers speculate that it wasn’t just low numbers, but that wolves surviving the human campaign against them were more wary animals, while the bolder ones were shot.

Whatever the reason, when McNay reviewed 80 cases of human-wolf encounters, he only found one case involving unprovoked, aggressive behaviour between 1900 and 1969. But, between 1969 and 2000, 18 cases were documented, including “three cases of serious injury to children since 1996.” Still not a big number when you consider the number of people attacked by dogs (300 people were killed by domestic dogs in the U.S. alone between 1979 and the late 1990s). But enough to question the belief that encounters with these wary carnivores were virtually unheard of.

McNay suggested that “increases in wolf protection, human activities in wolf habitat, and [an increase in] wolf numbers occurred concurrently with increases with unprovoked aggressive encounters.” In other words, it appeared that more wolves, in combination with more people in their habitat, had resulted in more encounters.

It’s important to remember that wolves are aggressive for different reasons. In an attempt to analyze the encounters, McNay developed a classification system and concluded “most aggressive encounters resulted from self-defense, defense of [other wolves], or rabies, or were triggered by the presence of a domestic dog.” Interestingly, McNay noted that wolves rarely vocalized during unprovoked, aggressive encounters, but wolves that were defending their dens consistently displayed loud vocalizations. Other researchers have confirmed and strengthened these conclusions.

There were 11 cases in McNay’s research where habituation played a role in unprovoked encounters – over half of the serious wolf encounters he documented. McNay considered wolves “habituated” if they repeatedly approached people, or repeatedly visited areas frequented by humans, without showing much fear.

In the roulette game that is human encounters with wildlife, it appears that in Jasper our ball has landed on this rare dark spot of wolf habituation. But the situation may not be as random as it appears.

For example, a favourite prey species of wolves are elk. Elk numbers are declining in the park, but out-of-town herds are declining faster than those near the townsite. Elk use the town, campgrounds and outlying accommodation to hide from predators that are usually wary of humans. As elk numbers dwindle, are wolves becoming more reliant on larger herds near the townsite? Is this forcing more encounters with people and their pets? Are there more dogs in town than in past decades, and more dog-walkers using the trails, increasing the chance of encounters further still?

It may be difficult to scientifically quantify exactly what’s happening at the intersection of all these factors, and maybe that’s not the point. We find ourselves in a situation that needs active management. Few of us want the destruction of wolves, but cases reviewed by McNay and others tell us that in some instances, wolves, like bears, can be dangerous for people. Denying this is to deny wolves their birthright as a predator, intelligent and opportunistic enough to once rule the continent.

What can we take away from past cases of aggressive wolf encounters? Biologists like McNay recommend increased vigilance and precaution, especially if there is any possibility wolves are at higher risk of habituation. He suggests negative conditioning may be required with wolves that show no fear of people. But preventing habituation in the first place is the key. Right now, the Pyramid Pack needs enough space to hunt natural prey, and less opportunity to become habituated to people and their pets. As trail-users, we can play a role in ensuring this pack stays healthy and wild.