Wolves becoming bolder as humans become more tolerant

Posted: Tuesday, June 13, 2000

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) -- Conditioned to become fearful and elusive by ranchers and bounty hunters a century ago, wolves once again are becoming the ''bold and curious'' animals noted in the journals of western settlers, a top wolf biologist says.

Diane Boyd told the annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology here that wolves ''have demonstrated an amazing adaptability to human-dominated landscapes.''

When white settlers eliminated wolves in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the rare remaining animals were shy and elusive.

''Wolves that were tolerant of humans did not survive to pass on those tolerant behaviors,'' she said Monday. ''There was a selection against boldness.''

In the past 30 years, though, humans have become more tolerant of wolves, and that is showing in wolf behavior.

Boyd, who monitors wolf populations for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told of wolves catching moths in the headlights of parked cars in Minnesota. In Canada's Northwest Territories, wolves learned to pull fishing nets out of the water and steal a freshly caught meal.

In western Montana's Ninemile Valley, tourists driving a recreational vehicle along the main road stopped to photograph a wolf standing in a meadow. As they took pictures, seven other wolves appeared from the timber and circled the RV, howling.

In Alaska's Denali National Park, wolves rarely surrender the road to tourist buses -- despite the flashing lights and cameras.

''I've been in this wolf business since 1977, and I had noticed some changes in wolf behavior,'' Boyd said. ''I wondered if it was a function of more wolves -- more opportunities to see those things -- or if there was actually a behavioral change within the population.''

This spring, Boyd and others mailed a survey to 130 wolf biologists worldwide, asking about the tolerance of wolves for humans and human activity. Sixty-four percent of the surveys have so far been returned. Preliminary results show 50 percent agreeing that wolves are becoming more tolerant of human activity, she said.

''So you see more reports of wolves near buildings and wolves using roads or -- in Europe -- of wolves scavenging garbage,'' Boyd said. ''One of our Italian colleagues likes to tell of wolves eating spaghetti out of Dumpsters.''

In Europe, though, wolves avoid people because they are hunted, she said. ''They come through towns, but at night. They will lie in a field all day and get up at night to hunt.''

In the Northern Rockies, where wolves are protected by federal law, wolves are becoming habituated to humans, Boyd said.

''We are starting to see the bold and curious animals that were so successful before white settlement. When white people first came West, they all recorded seeing wolves. They were everywhere, and were unafraid. That's why it was so easy to get rid of them.''

But do not mistake ''bold'' for ''aggressive,'' Boyd said. ''Wolves are not aggressive toward humans. Bold is not aggressive. Bold is an animal that stops and stares at you.''

Reports attached to the surveys returned so far tell of wolves following joggers on their morning runs, stealing boots and coats from sleeping campers, and killing dogs in the presence of their owners. People have been bitten by wolves in recent years, ''but then they are wild animals,'' Boyd said. ''Why wouldn't a wolf bite someone?''

''Wolves are becoming wolves once again,'' she said. ''And that presents a unique challenge for humans.''

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