The death of Candice Berner at Chignik Lake as a result of a wolf attack was a tragic event. Her family and friends deserve our deepest sympathy.
Was this a rare event or was it a result of an expanding wolf population that depleted its wild prey base and has now turned to humans? As a wildlife biologist who has studied wolves and moose since 1967 I think it's important to answer that question.
The attack on Ms. Berner is not the first wolf attack on a human being in Alaska in recent years. There have been several others including a non-fatal attack on a 6-year old boy at Icy Bay. That event along with the other Alaska attacks and several more in Canada all shared one common theme -- the wolves were fed by humans and had lost their natural fear. The wolf at Icy Bay was fed several times and lived near a logging camp for weeks. I do not know if the wolves at Chignik Lake were fed, but if so, an attack was predictable.
No matter the cause, wolf attacks are rare. Any large, wild animal can injure a human. Two people were killed by aggressive moose in Anchorage over the past 20 years, and several others were injured. Brown and black bears have injured scores of people in Alaska over the years. Wolves have ample opportunities to injure or kill people, but the very small number of attacks illustrates that they very seldom do. I have been in the field near wild wolves many times and have even approached them on their kills and at their dens, but none has been aggressive. Mostly, wolves are scared to death of people and run off as soon as they can.
In much of Alaska wolves are subject to shooting and trapping and have been for decades. The bold ones didn't live long and the survivors were mostly shy. Wolves that hang around humans in most areas of Alaska are often shot out of fear. But like all wild animals, wolves vary in nature and a small percentage can become dangerous.
What about the idea that wolf numbers have expanded, wolves have reduced moose and caribou populations and now humans are prey? In fact, wolf numbers have not increased greatly in most areas. The official statewide estimate of 7,200 to 11,000 has not increased in the last 15 years. In some areas, wolf numbers are down greatly as a result of wolf control programs and increased harvests by hunters and trappers.
When I came to Alaska in 1974, caribou and moose populations were at low levels following high numbers in the 1960s. The Nelchina Caribou Herd declined from 80,000 to 8,000 during 1962-1971. The moose population in that area declined by 50 percent during the same interval. The Tanana Flats moose population declined from 23,000 to 2,800 during 1965-1975. And the Western Arctic Caribou Herd declined from several hundred thousand to 75,000 by 1976. Since that time, all of these prey populations have recovered. Wolf attacks on humans when prey was scarce were no more common then than now and there is no reason to believe that depleted prey leads to an increased risk of wolves attacking people.
All of this indicates that there is no need to panic. The fatal attack at Chignik Lake was an extraordinarily rare event -- the first such event in recent memory. It is unlikely to occur again anytime soon, and we need not declare war on wolves in a futile attempt to reduce the risk. Be aware that bears, moose and domestic dogs are far more likely to injure you than are wolves, and learn some basic rules that may protect you when you encounter any of these animals.
Vic Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist and former Board of Game member who lives in Anchorage.
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