"Problem" Wolves in Alaska?

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Wolves have always had a bad reputation, often being cast as bloodthirsty villains despite their relatively shy demeanor when humans are around. Indeed, of all the large carnivores present in North America, wolves are among the least threatening, and people generally have more to fear from moose than from any carnivore in the United States. Still, wolves (and even coyotes) are not as shy about dogs as they are about people, and it seems that there has been a rash of attacks on dogs in recent weeks in Alaska. A recent report in the Anchorage Daily News provides a review of recent incidents, many involving people who who walking dogs or left their dogs outside on a leash, no human injuries being reported as yet (and most of the dogs actually involved in attacks sustaining minor injuries, although at least one was presumably killed and carried away). The story that tipped me off to the current "crisis," though, involved three women who were out on a walk in Fort Rich with a dog when a pack of wolves showed up. The women screamed, used pepper spray, and generally tried to get the wolves to back away, but the pack followed them out near the boundary of the park and the dog was hurt by one wolf.

As wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott rightly noted, though, the wolves are clearly interested in the dogs and not in the people, but as with any area where relatively large carnivores are around many people find little comfort in this fact. Ultimately (and regrettably) the pack might have to be destroyed as predators sometimes stick to a strategy like going after dogs if it works often enough, although it is not going to stop the problem altogether. Dog owners and citizens must take some responsibility as well and educate themselves on how to protect their pets in wolf-inhabited areas, especially when wolves might not get enough to eat in a given year and might turn to preying on pets. Similar problems have come up elsewhere, where coyotes run in through pet doors and scarf up bowls of pet food (or even kill dogs inside the house), but rather than call for a cull pet owners should be aware of how to responsibly keep their pets in areas where wild carnivores exist. Wolves are a boon to North American ecosystems, and it is regrettable that many people want to find any excuse to start hunting them again. As a remedy to such ill-founded arguments, I recommend Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf, the somewhat more technical symposium book People and Predators, and Scott Ian Barry's beautifully-illustrated Wolf Empire.

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The presence of wolves in Anchorage is greatly debated. Not that they're there or not, but what to do with them. I'm sure you're familiar with the horrible premise of shooting wolves from the air up north to preserve the caribou herds. Gina and I love wolves, and it's sad that people in Anchorage are so gung-ho on getting rid of them.

And get a picture of a timber wolf up there, Brian! :-)

I imagine Alaskan attitudes are similar to the lower 48 attitudes I encountered. Wolves are predators, and compete with humans for (scarce) wildlife, i.e. kill the wolves, then have more game to hunt.

When I lived in New Mexico, my neighbor saw her dog killed/eaten by a mountain lion. But that was an accepted cost of living in/near the forest. But the prevailing attitude towards coyotes was pretty unenlightened.

Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf is a work of fiction.

By Phil Goetz (not verified) on 25 Dec 2007 #permalink