By JERRY PRICKETT
TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — People seem fascinated when you tell them you are going to see wolves in the wild.
“Don’t let them eat you,” many will say, even though extremely few attacks by wolves have been recorded.
Tut Fuentevilla, an employee of the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, said in North America in the last 450 years there have been 19 documented attacks by wolves on people resulting in two human fatalities.
He noted that wolves are certainly physically capable of being able to attack humans, but they hunt what they know. In Yellowstone, they rarely hunt mule deer — too small, Fuentevilla said — instead focusing on elk and sometimes bison. Older wolves train the younger ones in what they hunt.
In places where there are less elk, they hunt other animals. In the more densely wooded Great Lakes areas, mule or white-tail deer may be the prey of choice. Because of the smaller prey size, you might see smaller wolves or smaller pack size, he said.
Wolves can hunt as either an ambush predator or a chase predator, Fuentevilla said, and even adapt to catching fish in streams.
“They’re usually shy of us,” Fuentevilla said.
Some speculate that humans standing up like bears makes wolves wary.
And if you want to know the animal that had attacked people the most in Yellowstone National Park, it would not be the wolf or the bear — it would be the bison, perhaps because people aren’t as wary about the heaviest land mammal in North America. A recent video showed a bison (also known as buffalo) charging a group that got too close and hurling a 9-year-old girl high into the air. Fortunately she was treated and released from the local clinic.
A 17-year-old hiker was attacked by a bison this week in North Dakota, taken to a hospital after being gored in the thigh.
Yet despite the lack of attacks on humans, there remains a mixed dynamic regarding wolves, a split that runs as deep as any political divide.
On the Continental Divide, the case for and against these relatives of “man’s best friend” — the dog — is huge. On one side are nature lovers like Belton’s Waldo Montgomery who see the balance wolves have brought back to the area where elks and bison had to be culled because of overpopulation and erosion was changing rivers. Numerous other species of plants, birds and animals actually began to flourish again in a “trophic cascade” upon the wolf’s return to Yellowstone.
On the other side are ranchers and hunters, who fear the predators will decimate their herds of cattle, sheep, trophy hunts and meat to eat.
An internet search reveals two “confirmed” predatory wild wolf attacks that resulted in deaths on Wikipedia. Yet another site, https://oregonoutdoorcouncil.org, claims thousands of people killed between 1580 and 1830 in France, 440 killed in Italy, 721 in 1875 in India and Pakistan and tales of attacks in the annals of North America. Wolf supporters say those people may have died in other ways and wolves were seen feeding on the carcasses.
Another important factor in wolf attacks is how habitualized wolves have become with human behavior. In a book by research scientist L. David Mech and zoology professor Luigi Boitani published in 2003, it is claimed that wolves showed little fear towards humans before the popularization of firearms in the 19th century. The wolves often would travel near human hunting parties and feed from disposed carcasses.
Wolves feeding on human refuse and supplies also has an impact, www.animalwised.com reports. If a wolf has been able to find sustenance from these resources, they may be more likely to approach humans and an attack may result.
On the other hand, people attacking — or hunting — wolves has been on the increase since the animal’s 1995 return to Yellowstone after almost being eradicated in the lower 48 U.S. states.
Trophy hunters and ranchers wanting to protect livestock seek out wolves in areas surrounding Yellowstone. For those who have grown to love the animals in the park safety zone there is a hope for a buffer zone to protect the wolves, who for some reason can’t discern the park boundaries. On the other hand, the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering delisting wolves from the endangered species list, which would allow states to set up more hunting of the animals.
Fuentevilla said there were 88 wolves documented at Yellowstone, the neighboring Grand Teton National Park and national forests last year, down from a usual 100 spread out in about 10 packs.
There are about 150 grizzlies in the park boundaries and about three to four times as many black bears, he said. Mother bears stay with their cubs for about three years, typically not mating again during that time. Cubs have a high mortality rate, especially among the younger mothers, Fuentevilla said.
Some recent cases of human hunters reportedly killing the alpha wolves is very disruptive to the pack structure, Fuentevilla said. He noted that it is important that decision makers make the right choices of which animals can be hunted at the right time.
Without the alphas controlling the pack, less experienced offspring may resort to seeking easier prey.
Ironically, www.seeker.com reports that killing wolves may actually increase attacks on livestock. It reported Washington State University wildlife biologist Rob Wielgus and data analyst Kaylie Peebles wanted to test the efficacy of lethal control programs used on predators.
“The researchers found that with every wolf killed the chance of livestock attacks increases significantly,” the website reported. “They noted that this probability trend line continues upward until 25 percent of wolves in a population are killed, at which point livestock depredation begins to level off.”
Wielgus and Peebles wrote that such a level of lethal wolf population control “is unsustainable and cannot be carried out indefinitely if federal relisting of wolves is to be avoided.” For the lethal control of wolves to result in the protection of livestock, they found, then the animals would wind up right back on the government endangered list.
The researchers suggest that killing wolves probably disrupts the social structure of a wolf pack. When pack numbers decrease, particularly among alpha males and females that normally keep younger offspring from mating, it could increase the number of breeding pairs. “When those pairs have offspring,” the www.seeker.com reported, “it results in more mouths to feed.” The new parents may be more likely to hunt accessible livestock instead of seeking out elk or deer.
“Maybe another wolf steps in” and does fantastic, Fuentevilla said, comparing it to a football team losing both its quarterback and its offensive coordinator at the same time. But the animals’ social group is fractured, so the pack may split and actually become more damaging to human interests.
Next: Finding a balance.