You think the wolf controversy couldn’t get more divisive? Ha. Even though domestic dogs kill dozens of people every year in this country, one death by wolf can make headlines forever.
By Bill Schneider
Anything wolf makes big headlines–and, it seems, is never old news.
For fourteen years since conservationists and the federal government brought the wolf back to the northern Rockies (plus several years leading up to the reintroduction), anything and everything about the Big Dog has been, to say the least, controversial.
But something hasn’t happened yet that could make it much more contentious.
Many westerners have seen the conflict-ridden canine as an agent of change, desired or despised, depending on your point of view, with not many people holding in the middle ground–and an expensive change, too, considering how much money goes into managing and litigating issues surrounding the return of the wolf. Plus, of course, the master predator kills and eats things like elk, livestock, and even a few of its domestic cousins serving as our faithful pets.
But all that controversy will pale by comparison if a wolf bites somebody. We’ve heard many stories about people feeling threatened, but no incident where any member of humankind was actually attacked.
In winning approval for the reintroduction, conservations frequently used the assurance that the wolf posed no threat to humankind, and that nobody had ever been killed by a wolf in North America, ever. Back in 1995 and 1996 when we carted the wolves down from Canada to Yellowstone and central Idaho, that was true. Then, four years ago, we had the much-publicized incident that became the first official, documented fatality.
It happened in far north Saskatchewan. On November 8, 2005, a pack of four wolves killed and ate 22-year-old Kenton Carnegie, an engineering student at the University of Waterloo working at a remote mining camp near Points North Landing in the Wollaston Lake area.
After two years of dispute over what really happened at the camp, a Canadian coroner’s jury officially declared that wolves were to blame for Carnegie’s death.
Although I’m sure nobody was delighted to see a man die a horrible death, anti-wolfers, always skeptical of claims that wolves pose no threat to people, were delighted to have some documentation that the oft-stated claims of conservationists weren’t completely true. Conservationists, predictably, continue to dispute the coroner’s findings, claiming a bear actually killed and consumed Carnegie, and the wolves came around later to be falsely implicated.
Circumstances of the incident were sketchy if not predictable. At the camp, both bears and wolves had become conditioned to getting human food rewards at a large open garbage dump nearby, so in any case, wolves or bears, it was classic human misconduct and mishandling of garbage that eventually led to the tragic death.
Valerius Geist, perhaps Canada’s most noted biologist, gave testimony at the coroner’s inquest that supported his belief that wolves killed Carnegie. He didn’t dance around his conclusion and called it “the first direct human fatality from a wolf attack in North America.” Previously, he noted, rabid wolves have bitten people, but the rabies virus, not the wolf, caused any subsequent death.
But Geist, who has studied wolves, went a big step beyond that key point and said he has noticed a behavior shift in wolf populations that weren’t hunted and consequently had a diminishing fear of humans. These populations tend to be more aggressive than wolves he has studied in the wild.
As we all know, a couple generations of wolves, about 1,600 of them, currently roam around the northern Rockies. Although federal and state “management actions” remove a couple hundred animals from the population every year, these wolves have never been hunted until very recently when Idaho and Montana opened seasons in September. That’s the intriguing point for me. Are we creating populations of more aggressive, more dangerous wolves? Now, that could get controversial, eh?
“The argument, that there is little danger from wolves because they have rarely attacked humans in North America, is fallacious,” Geist emphasized in an article about the Carnegie incident.
Of special concern, he wrote, are “tame and inquisitive” wolves. When you see such a wolf, “get out of there quick,” he advises, “but without undue haste…Running away invites an attack.”
As for my $0.02, I may be among the minority in the middle ground. I like wolves, supported the reintroduction, and want to see wolves and people peacefully co-exist in the northern Rockies. But I also favor getting the Big Dog off the endangered species list and managed by the state wildlife agencies, which would lead to carefully regulated wolf-hunting seasons.
Endless litigation and disagreement among stakeholders has slowed the process, but nonetheless, we’re on the right track. I hate to think what might happen if we have even one incident similar to what happened up at Points North. Let’s collectively hope it never happens here.
So, Big Bad Wolf, for several reasons, please don’t bite anybody. ◊
Bill Schneider works as travel and outdoor editor for the online magazine NewWest.Net where a version of this commentary originally appeared. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.