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Wolf Crossings

A Rural Viewpoint On Wolf Reintroduction And Protection

Reality Bites 

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Updated 10-06



Article/Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, the University of Calgary 




On November the 8th, 2005, a 22-year-old third-year geological engineering student at the University of Waterloo by the name of Kenton Joel Carnegie, was killed by four wolves at Points North Landing, Wollaston Lake area, in northern Saskatchewan. This case is unique in that it is the first direct human fatality from a wolf attack in North America in recent times. There have been people bitten by rabid wolves and killed, but such kills “do not count” as it is the rabies virus, not the wolf-bite that killed.


Fresh snow allowed accurate track reading. Mr. Carnegie was by himself when he was approached by the wolves from behind. He fell three times before failing to rise. There have been other attacks in Canada, historical and recent. Mr. Fred Desjarlais was recently attacked and wounded by a wolf in Northern Saskatchewan. There are also unreported recent attacks by wolves in Saskatchewan, one of which I was informed on in some detail. A local rancher was attacked by three wolves while deer hunting. He killed two.


We are aware that the four wolves in question had been observed and photographed by others, and that Mr. Carnegie was aware of this. Unfortunately, neither he nor those who discussed the matter with him, as reported on by the Saskatoon Star phoenix of Nov. 14th 2005, were aware that tame and inquisitive wolves are a signal of danger. Consequently, the first requirement is that the general public, but especially out-doors-men be informed that when they see tame, inquisitive wolves, that they get out of there quick, but without undue haste, while being prepared to defend themselves. Running away invites an attack.


Why are tame and inquisitive wolves a sign of danger?


When wolves are well-fed, they are – extremely – shy, and avoid humans. In my days in the northern wilderness I have seen wolves panic repeatedly when they crossed my track or got my scent. We have other observations indicating that wolves are normally very cautious. However, when wolves run out of their preferred prey, they begin to explore alternative prey. They do so very cautiously, and over an extended time period. This exploration for an alternative food is manifest in wolves becoming – increasingly - tame and inquisitive. My neighbors, my wife and I have had experiences in recent years with one wolf pack which ran out of prey and shifted its attention onto farms and suburbs. I have been investigated three times in the open by wolves, the same wolves threatened my wife twice, once on our door step, the same wolves attacked and killed neighbor dogs, followed riders and “nibbled at” and killed livestock. They explored my neighbor’s dairy cows by docking tails, slashing ears and cutting hocks. Other Vancouver Island wolves went on to explore humans by licked, nipping and tearing clothing (in a camp site on Vargas Island near Tofino) weeks before attacking and severely wounding a camper, Scott Lavigne, July 2nd, 2000. He was saved from the attack by fellow campers Jim Beatty, Vancouver Sun pp. A1-2, July 5th 2000). The bottom line is, when wolves appear tame, stare at you and follow you they are investigating you - and it’s quite likely with lunch in mind.


A confounding factor is refuse about human habitations. Wolves drawn by hunger due to declining natural prey to human habitations, inevitably, run into garbage and refuse. Feeding on such can become a habit which leads to the habituation of wolves to people. Such wolves may not be particularly hungry when they extend their exploration of alternative foods to humans. Two wolves killed after the attack on the camper on Vargas Island were full of deer fawns. This suggests that habituated wolves my attack without being hungry. The bottom line: tame and inquisitive wolves are dangerous no matter how they became tame and inquisitive.


The argument, that there is little danger from wolves because they have rarely attacked humans in North America, is fallacious. There are very good reasons why wolves in North America, as opposed to Europe, have attacked people rarely. In the past decades we have experienced in North America a unique situation: we had a recovery of wildlife. Few North Americans are aware today that a century ago North America’s wildlife was largely decimated and that it took a lot of effort to bring wildlife back. This restoration of North America’s wildlife, and thus this continent’s biodiversity, is probably the greatest environmental success story of the 20th Century. Such a recovery begins with an increase in herbivores. It is followed after a lag-time by an increase in predators. While predators are scarce, and herbivores are abundant, wolves are well fed. Consequently they are very large in body size, but also very shy of people. We expect to see then no tame or inquisitive wolves. Wolves are seen rarely under such conditions, fostering the romantic image of wolves so prevalent in North America today. However, when herbivore numbers decline while wolf numbers rise, we expect wolves to disperse and begin exploring for new prey. That’s when tame, inquisitive wolves appear.


How do we know?


Firstly, because wolves have been raised by scientists in captivity, we have developed a detailed understanding about how wolves explore novelty. This information is discussed by colleagues in my profession. I am an ethologist, that is, a student of animal behavior. In my profession becoming acquainted with how animals habituate is essential to surviving field work with tame animals unscathed. Secondly, I have had personal experiences with a wolf pack that settled about our house on Vancouver Island for four years, ran out of prey and gravitated to farms and suburbs. I wrote down the experiences of my neighbors, my wife and myself as these wolves were, for the first time to my knowledge, not acting like recent North American wolves. Rather, they acted as if they were Russian wolves. I penned a letter on this to Erich Klinghammer of Wolf Park, Illinois, a veteran wolf biologist; the letter was published by the Virgina Wildlifer (May 2003 issue pp. 39-43). Thirdly, I am editing a book on Russian wolves written by a linguist, Will Graves, who worked as translator in Moscow for the US armed forces. The Russian experience delineates with considerable precision when wolves become dangerous. Fourthly, the book by Heptner et al. on the Mammals of the USSR has now been translated in to English by the Smithsonian Institute, and is consequently available in English. Read the section on wolves! Ironically, the experience of the Russians is similar to that of American pioneers as recorded in some detail by Stanley P. Young (1946. The Wolf in North American History. Idaho: Caxton). That wolves can pose a lethal threat is, therefore, not a Red Riding hood Fairytale.


One cannot defend the current romantic notions about harmless, friendly, cuddly wolves! It is necessary that the public be informed that there exists a large amount of experience and information to the contrary. And the public should know the signs of danger before heading into the wilds. And tame, inquisitive wolves are one such sign!


Unfortunately, that’s not all one should be aware of when doing outdoor activities in areas with increasing wolf populations. Expanding wolf populations will, invariably, begin to overlap regions in which small predators carry rabies. Consequently, it becomes likely that some wolves become infected with rabies. Such wolves are highly dangerous, not only because in their mental derangement they become exceedingly aggressive inflicting deep, multiple bite wounds, but also because the bite of a rabid wolf is lethal – unless treated quickly. Anyone bitten by a rabid wolf needs to get to a hospital very quickly for treatment. In the past lethal control of wolf populations was the response to rabid wolves in Canada. However, that’s after the fact! How to deal with this potential problem before the fact is the crux of the matter. Not going out alone, carrying arms and a cell phone may be part of the answer.


And here is a third concern without a simple solution. As indicated earlier, as a landscape is re-colonized by wildlife, herbivores are followed with some lag by carnivores, which in turn are followed after a longer delay by the pathogens and parasites. Some of these require both, herbivores and carnivores, to complete their life cycle. If we generate dense wolf populations then it is inevitable that such lethal diseases as Hydatid disease become established. This disease is based on a tiny tape worm (Echinococcus granulosus) which lives in the gut of canids –wolves, domestic dogs, coyotes - in great multitudes. It produces tiny eggs which are passed out in large volume in the feces of infected canids. Normally these tiny eggs spread out on forage consumed by deer, elk, moose etc. Once ingested the eggs develop into big cysts in the lung, liver or brain of the infected herbivore. Each cyst contains huge numbers of tiny tape-worm heads. The disease kills the host outright or makes it susceptible to predation. When it’s lungs or liver are consumed by wolves, dogs or coyotes, cysts included, the tiny tapeworms are freed, attach themselves to the gut, and grow and produce eggs, closing the cycle.


Humans pick up the disease from the fur of infected wolves, dogs or coyotes they handle, or from the feces they disturb. Wolf scat can be contaminated with millions upon millions of tiny tape worm eggs. These eggs, like fine dust, can become readily air born and landing on hands and mouth. The larvae move into major capillary beds – liver, lung, brain – where they develop into large cysts full of tiny tape worm heads. These cysts can kill infected persons unless they are removed surgically. It consequently behooves us (a) to insure that this disease does not become wide spread, and (b) that hunters and guided know that wolf scats and coyote scats should never be touched or kicked. Therefore, do not touch or kick wolf feces – on principle! Avoid it and do not disturb. (c) In areas with Echinococcus skinning of wolves and coyotes must be done with grate care using gloves and masks! (d) Never feed the offal from deer, elk and moose to domestic dogs! If the gut of the domestic dog is filled with Echinococcus tape worms, then the house and yard in which the dog lives will become infected with the deadly tape worm eggs. These can then develop into big cysts in humans using said habitation. Ranches are especially endangered.


There are still other diseases which will spread with “completion of the ecosystem”. We face a potential public health problem.