I moved to Anchorage in 1974 to work as a moose and wolf biologist for the Department of Fish and Game. In the winter of 1975-1976 another biologist and I investigated two cases where wolves killed dogs in the Eagle River Valley. In 1977 I moved to Fairbanks to be a biologist there. At that time, wolves killed several dogs in the Goldstream Valley on the outskirts of Fairbanks. From time to time, incidents like these have occurred over at least the past 35 years and people have occasionally had close encounters with wolves near our large urban centers.
The recent article about wolves apparently killing a dog in Eagle River "Bolder wolves fray resident's nerves," ADN, Nov. 8) suggests that wolves are becoming more bold and more used to people, thereby posing more danger than in the past. In my view, these claims are unfounded.
Are human-tolerant wolves apt to injure or kill people? A lot of evidence in Alaska and elsewhere indicates that healthy wild wolves become dangerous only when fed. When unfed wolves are not shot or trapped they adapt to the presence of people and pose virtually no danger.
Examples of this include the wolves in Denali National Park, where no one has been injured by a wolf in the past 90 years. Wolves in several packs there became tolerant of people and vehicles, approaching to within a few yards with little fear. In my fieldwork there I have been near wolves dozens of times over the past 30 years and never had a wolf react aggressively.
Also, in the Juneau area, a black wolf became tolerant of people and for several recent years there were hundreds of encounters between people, dogs and that wolf with no human injuries. This wolf proved that people and unfed, wild wolves can co-exist with virtually no danger to people.
What about dangers to dogs? Wolves treat dogs just as they do other wolves -- as trespassers in their territories that are typically chased and attacked if caught. It doesn't matter if the dogs are large or small, or are with people, loose in the yard or chained up. If dogs are caught they may be eaten just like coyotes and foxes that wolves also routinely kill.
Wildlife authorities in the past recognized that wolves near our urban centers occasionally killed dogs but posed little danger for people. But now they are taking a more aggressive approach to reduce or eliminate wolf packs near Anchorage in response to people's fears. One Eagle River resident advocated eliminating the problem despite not seeing any wolves. Her neighbors saw wolves only three or four times over the past six months.
Available data clearly indicate that residents of Anchorage are far more likely to be injured by a bear or a moose than by an unfed wolf. Although some people think we should severely reduce or eliminate moose and bears from urban areas, most do not and it is not the policy of Fish and Game to do so. Similarly, we should not let irrational fear dictate our urban wolf management policy.
Rather than an aggressive wolf-killing program, we should teach people how to behave near wolves. As with any large wild animal, people should be cautious when near wolves and should know some basic rules. Pay attention to your surroundings when in wolf country. Don't run from wolves (or bears )-- stand your ground. Don't jog near wolves with a headset on that prevents hearing approaching animals. Carry pepper spray. Don't let dogs run loose near wolves and keep them indoors at night. And never feed wolves. Inform others of these measures and encourage them to be cautious.
With wolves near our urban centers, we need not let excessive fear dictate our actions. There is a long record of wolves co-existing with people in Alaska and there's no reason to believe this cannot continue.
Vic Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist and former Board of Game member. He lives in Anchorage.
By VIC VAN BALLENBERGHE
Alaska Dispatch Publishing