Article 17:

(Case Study) Wolf Habituation as a Conservation Conundrum

By Diane K. Boyd, Corvallis, Montana

Historically, intense fear of gray wolves (Canis lupus) as predators of livestock and perhaps people led to bounty hunts in the Western U.S. during the late 1800s and early 1900s that successfully eradicated wolves from most of their historic range in North America. However, public sentiment regarding wolves began to change in the mid-1900s. In the U.S., wolves were federally protected from human persecution by passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Through a combination of increasing public support, natural dispersal, and managed reintroductions, these controversial predators have increased in number, returning to some of their historic range.

Wolf recovery has been lauded as one of the most successful restoration efforts of the last century. Wolves are staging a strong comeback in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Additionally, wolf populations are expanding in Canada and many European countries including France, Switzerland, Italy, Norway, and Sweden. However, we did not anticipate a surprising twist to this story: Wolves have proven to be more adaptable than previously perceived, and now often live in close proximity to humans. The continued expansion of human populations into non-urban landscapes has resulted in an increase of wolf–human conflicts. Wildlife species habituate to human activities and humans themselves, resulting in more frequent encounters at the interface. As a result, resources put into wolf reintroduction are now often used for wolf management and control activities.

On April 26, 2000 a healthy, wild wolf attacked a 6-year-old boy in Icy Bay, Alaska. The wolf was killed and the boy received stitches and recovered fully. The Alaskan incident was so unusual that it was reported in newspapers across the U.S. Every year a few humans are injured, sometimes fatally, by wild coyotes, black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, deer, elk, and moose. Although wolves often kill formidable prey as large as moose, wolf attacks on humans are very rare. However, the frequency of such encounters in North America has increased in the past three decades. Wolf conservationists are concerned because an increase in human–wolf interaction may result in harm to humans, exaggerated fear of wolves, and, ultimately, increased wolf mortality. Here, I examine the causes of these increasing incidents and discuss the effects of this conflict on wolf conservation efforts.

The wolf evolved as a top carnivore, and enhanced their survival by opportunistically exploiting resources, including those found in novel situations and expropriating other predator’s kills. In recorded historic times, North American wolves were unafraid of humans and commonly investigated human activities and camps to the point of becoming nuisances (Hampton 1997). Many frontiersmen, including Lewis and Clark, recorded the high visibility of wolves and their fearlessness (DeVoto 1981). Although the wolves were described as bold and pesky, they were rarely reported as a threat to humans.

However, as the wolf extirpation campaigns began in the late 1800s, the curious wolves disappeared: the bold wolves were shot, the accessible wolves were poisoned, and the shy wolves survived in remote places. By 1940, intensive wolf persecution had reduced wolf distribution in the contiguous U.S. by approximately 98%, allowing wolves to remain only in areas with an absence of potential wolf–human conflict. As wolf eradication approached its goal, the last surviving wolves were secretive and cunning (Young 1970).

Beginning in the 1970s, strong anti-wolf fears were moderated by increased ecological awareness and counter-balanced by the emergence of pro-wolf adoration. The phrase “there has never been a documented case of a healthy wild wolf attacking a human in North America” became the mantra of individuals trying to create a more positive image of the wolf. These educational programs contributed greatly to changing public attitude and enhancing wolf recovery efforts. Wolf–dog hybrids and pet wolves became popular, as people began to idolize wolves as wild, clever, and human-friendly. Ultimately, the elusive wolf of the extirpation era became the wolf of modern memory that people believe represents “normal” wolf behavior. But are these visions of wolves more a figment of our selective imagination than the reality of what comprises this ecologically complex carnivore? Are we now doing wolves a disservice by creating unrealistic expectations of the wolf as a benign, wilderness-dwelling animal? To answer these questions, we need to understand wolves and the nature of their recovery in more detail.

The wolf recovery success story is noteworthy but not surprising. Historically wolves had the broadest worldwide geographic distribution of any living terrestrial mammalian species, with the exception of humans, and occupied nearly all habitat types. They require only two key habitat components for their existence: (1) an adequate, year-round supply of ungulates, and (2) freedom from excessive persecution by humans. Wolves are cooperative obligatory hunters that require teamwork and a highly developed social dominance hierarchy within packs. Each pack is comprised of individuals with a wide range of behaviors that fulfill different roles within the pack, ranging from shy and submissive to bold and dominant. Wolves have significant plasticity in their behavior, morphology, and genetic composition (Boyd et al. 2001) that enhances their adaptability to a wide diversity of environments. This variability, in combination with high fecundity, has allowed for relatively rapid population recovery.

Wolf sociality and plasticity allowed the wolf to be domesticated at least 14,000 years ago (Morey 1994) and possibly as long as 135,000 years ago (Vila et al. 1997, 1999). Dogs are phenotypically a highly variable product of artificial selection pressure on wolves by humans. The boldness of some wild wolves facilitated taming by humans and eventual partnerships in hunting, companionship, cleaning camps of human waste, and becoming beasts of burden pulling travois and sleds. The wolf is unique among carnivores in that it has become domesticated into a common utility and companion animal for humans worldwide. Thus, is it so surprising that the complications that arise when wolves coexist with humans are unique?

The expanding wolf distribution has caused an increase in wolf–human encounters and generated concerns among wolf managers and conservationists. Only two accounts of wolf–human encounters that resulted in injurious contact between a wolf and humans were published in the scientific literature between 1900 and 1985 (Peterson 1947; Jenness 1985). However, since 1985 several apparently deliberate, injurious wolf attacks on humans were documented in Alaska (Icy Bay incident described earlier), Vargas Island (British Columbia), Algonquin Park (Ontario, five separate attacks), and India. The attacks in India were the most dramatic and severe: In Uttar Pradesh during a 2-year period (1996–1997), a wolf or wolves killed or seriously injured 74 humans, mostly children under the age of 10 years (Mech 1998). This may sound like a tabloid headline, but the attacks were well documented by wolf authorities. Several factors may have led to the attacks including a lack of available wild prey, domestic livestock that were well protected, and many small children playing in the vicinity of the wolves.

The common factor among nearly all reported wolf attacks was that wolves had become increasingly bold around humans (perhaps because of food scarcity, or possibly as a new strategy to exploit resources brought by humans into wilderness areas). North American wolves involved in recent attacks were repeatedly seen stealing articles of clothing, gear, exploring campsites, and sometimes obtaining food items—behaviors nearly identical to those reported by early frontiersmen. The wolves of Algonquin and Vargas Island exhibited bold behavior for weeks or months before the attacks occurred. Therefore, those injuries would probably have been preventable if humans had perceived the wolf as a wild predator rather than a thrilling campsite visitor.

This essay is not intended to rekindle fear of wolves, but rather to address a very real and growing problem that is occurring with wolves (and many other wildlife species): How can humans and wolves coexist in increasingly human-dominated landscapes? The challenge to wolf managers and conservationists at present is to avoid creating public fear of wolves, yet paint a realistic picture of wolf behavior in the hopes of reducing human–wolf conflicts and subsequent wolf mortality.

Although wolves adapt quickly to changing dynamics, the same is not true for the humans that dominate the landscapes wolves are recolonizing. Wolves are finding new food resources in llamas and pygmy goats on ranchettes (2–10 ha land parcels) in the western U.S. Expensive Great Pyrenese and Anatolian shepherd dogs that guard livestock are killed by territorial wolves. Pets have been taken by wolves from porches, and increasingly, wolves pass within sight of people in national parks. The denizen of the wilderness is adapting quite well to human-dominated landscapes. The conundrum is that we have managed wolf recovery so successfully that conflict situations arise more frequently and we must anticipate potential backlash by the public to avoid slipping back into an anti-wolf fervor. New efforts to educate the public about the nature of wild wolves, particularly emphasizing their differences from domestic dogs are working. People are warned to take reasonable precautions, and reassured that these alone should prevent conflicts with wolves. Still, helping maintain a balanced relationship between humans and expanding wolf populations will remain a significant conservation challenge.

Literature Cited

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Peterson, R. L. 1947. A record of a timber wolf attacking a man. J. Mammal. 28:294–295.

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