Wolf Advice Splits Pack of Experts

DENALI: Telling people to drive wolves off is wrong, biologist says

Doug O'Hara / Anchorage Daily News / June 13, 2004

The chance to watch a prowling wolf or meet the gaze of pale lupine eyes across brushy tundra makes Denali National Park one of the most extraordinary places in the world to view wildlife.
But how people should deal with individual wolves that seem fearless has generated a growl of disagreement among park officials, scientists and other people familiar with the closely studied animals that den along the Toklat River.

The issue is the latest wrangle over what may be the most famous wolves in North America -- about 100 animals that inspire intense emotions as well as thousands of stories, studies and photographs.

In this instance, it's about visitors, dogs and a "keep wildlife wild" program put in place after close encounters in 2000 and 2001 worried park officials that a few wolves had gotten too bold.

A long-standing policy that allows dogs on leashes in certain campgrounds and roads, combined with new advice that people shout, bang pots or even strike wolves that deliberately come too close, is putting both wolves and people at risk, according to a wildlife scientist who studies Denali wolves.

Telling people to drive off wolves with rocks or sticks misunderstands the natural fearlessness of Denali wolves, Gordon Haber, a frequent critic of federal and state wolf management, said in a letter last month to Denali superintendent Paul Anderson.

"They're jumping to a lot of unwarranted conclusions," he added during a telephone interview last week. "Fearless behavior is pretty normal for wolves. And it doesn't normally translate into aggression toward people."

But the presence of dogs in the park -- especially in the Teklanika area frequented by the East Fork wolf pack -- could trigger the very aggression that park officials seek to avoid, said Haber, who has studied Denali wolves for more than 40 years.

Scientists have long noted that wolves will attack other wolves, coyotes, foxes or dogs they find in their territory.

"I'm strongly recommending that people not be allowed to bring their dogs into the park, particularly near Teklanika campground," Haber said. "People just walk their dogs up and down the road, and someday one of them is going to get attacked."

As a first step this summer, Haber suggested that the park restrict dogs to campgrounds and provide poop bags to decrease wolf exposure to canine diseases.

Haber outlined his recommendations in a report published nationally this spring by the group Friends of Animals, which provides funding for his research.

But Anderson disagrees that park policy needs changing. In a telephone interview Thursday, Anderson said Haber has mischaracterized the park's advice about wolf encounters and overstated the danger posed by dogs.

"If we had evidence that restricting dogs or closing Teklanika to dogs was necessary to provide for visitor safety and wolf safety in Teklanika, I would close it," he said. Visitors "are restricted already to where they can take their dogs, and I don't want to restrict them any more."

For instance, people cannot take dogs hiking into the backcountry.

Throwing objects would be the very last step taken against a wolf after flaring coats and making noise didn't work, Anderson said. It's similar to advice given to campers about how to deal with an attacking black bear.

"It's meant to be an escalating response," said park wildlife biologist Tom Meier.

Anderson said the program appears to be working. "We're seeing less close encounters with wolves right now than we've had in the past two years," he said.

But Haber is not alone in questioning the park policy.

Denali wildlife photographer Tom Walker doesn't think dogs present much problem, but he agrees with Haber that park managers should not encourage people to be aggressive toward wolves.
"The Park Service has gone overboard," he said. "They are specifically telling people to do things that I believe personally are in violation of federal regulations" against harassing wildlife.

His own extensive research into early park history for a book found "many instances when wolves were as brazen as they are today, and there was no untoward activity as a result," Walker said.

"Now, all of a sudden, they think there's something wrong with them. Well, maybe there's something right with them. We kill them everywhere else."

Karen Deatherage, with Defenders of Wildlife, said she also has misgivings about park advice about wolves, even though her group helped sponsor a brochure with wolf advice to visitors.

"Defenders does not support throwing rocks at wolves in the park, because we think that can lead to a lot of abuse," she said.

Unlike Walker, she would support restricting pets. "Dogs are clearly a major attractant for wolves," she said.

Dogs can trigger aggression in wolves, but keeping wolves leery of people will discourage attacks against pets, said state biologist Mark McNay, a wildlife researcher and wolf expert at the Fairbanks office of the Department of Fish and Game.

"In other areas of the country, wolves that exhibit fearless behavior because they are in close proximity with people over time, and don't receive any negative conditioning from people -- those wolves have in many cases eventually caused a problem by biting someone, and in some cases, those are serious bites," he said.

None of those places had a history of problems before things went bad, he added. "Suddenly, things changed dramatically in a single day by a single wolf."

A review of 80 wolf-human encounters in Alaska and Canada uncovered an unsettling trend, McNay wrote in the Wildlife Society Bulletin in 2002. Only one case of unprovoked wolf aggression was reported between 1900 and 1969, but 18 occurred between 1969 and 2000. They included three serious attacks on children, including a 6-year-old boy bitten at an Icy Bay logging camp in 2000.

In a report posted online by Fish and Game, McNay cited several encounters in Denali park that he said illustrate "a high level of habituation" by wolves toward people.

On May 31, 2001, six wolves were seen near the Teklanika campground. Later that evening, three wolves investigated a tent with a baby that had been crying for hours and one wolf pressed its nose against the bug netting, McNay wrote. The wolves chewed on a sandal and a toy before leaving and checking out another tent with a small child inside.

After that and some other incidents of wolves approaching people, the park closed Teklanika to tent camping and began advising people to shoo wolves off, Anderson said.

"It is extremely important to give any wolf that approaches a person the message that they will not be tolerated in close proximity," states the "Wolf Encounters" handout distributed to park visitors.

That makes sense, McNay said: "You want the wolf to feel that you, a person, poses some potential threat. And that way their natural behavior includes some avoidance response."

Haber argued that this attitude draws the wrong conclusion. Many cases of aggressive wolves in McNay's review were animals that had been conditioned to seek food from people or were reacting to the presence of a dog, Haber said. "Those are the triggers."

While park officials cited the incident in which wolves approached the tent with the crying baby "as a good example of menacing, worrisome, unnatural wolf behavior," Haber wrote in his letter to Anderson, "it was just the opposite."

The wolves investigated screaming that sounded like a wounded animal, then left the scene.

"At no time did they show the slightest hint of aggressive behavior while circling the tent -- only intense curiosity as they evaluated the loud distress calling inside," he wrote. "It would have been easy for them to jump on the tent in an aggressive fury but they did not, plainly because they figured out that there were people inside."

Denali wolves can interact with people without posing a threat, Haber said.
"Fearless behavior and aggressive behavior are not the same thing," he said Friday.
Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do'harra@adn.com .

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