Wolves in America are in serious trouble. While this news is in no way new, today it is more true than ever as the headlines across the nation are splashed with reports of the first confirmed wolf-on-human fatal attack in the United States. Already on the shaky side of a recovery from severe endangerment, wolves will likely be vilified in the wake of the terribly unfortunate death of an Alaskan woman this week.
According to reports, Alaskan teacher Candice Berner, 32, of Chignik Lake, Alaska was jogging when she was apparently attacked by 2 or 3 mature wolves. Berner was reported to be in excellent physical health although of diminutive stature at only 4'11" tall. Since she was listening to an mp3 player at the time of attack, it is assumed that she was unaware of the wolves' presence until they actually attacked. Berger had just recently moved to Alaska to teach Special Education from her native Pennsylvania. Her body was found by snowmobilers and showed evidence of a prolonged struggle with severe trauma to the throat and clear evidence that the bites occurred while the victim was still alive.
This is the first fatal wolf attack on a human in the United States and only the second alleged in North America. The first was an unconfirmed fatality in Canada in 2005 which is widely regarded by wildlife experts to have been more likely perpetrated by a Black Bear than wolves.
Wolves have been teetering on the brink of extinction in North America mainly due either directly (hunting) or indirectly (elimination of prey habitat) to human activity. Three highly controversial reintroduction programs in the United States have shown varying levels of success. The first was in 1991 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when Red Wolves were reintroduced to their once native habitat after having been eliminated some 85 years prior. After 25 live births in the wild, the surviving wolves dwindled to a mere 7 adults who have since been assumed dead due to lack of contact.
The second reintroduction project was in 1995 where Grey Wolves were re-introduced to the Greater Yellowstone Eco-System of Idaho and Wyoming. This effort was met with a great deal of resistance from ranchers in the area. Efforts to include Montana in this reintroduction were blocked and a number of legal battles were fought in the name of keeping Wolves out of their former habitat. Today this reintroduction is largely successful with several strong, healthy packs roaming the Greater Yellowstone area. The battles, however rage on with land owners and ranchers fighting for rights to kill Wolves and biologists and environmental groups arguing the benefits throughout the ecosystem in having such a keystone species in place.
The final reintroduction program was in 1998 in Arizona where Mexican Wolves - on the brink of extinction in the 1980s were captured and reintroduced in Arizona. Today efforts are halfway to their goal with an estimated 50 of the targeted 100 wild individuals now roaming parts of Arizona and New Mexico.
Wolves are a keystone species and a highly skilled predator. They hunt in sophisticated social groups and have highly refined techniques of prey identification and selection. While Ms. Berner's death is undoubtedly a terrible tragedy, it is an inevitable result of ever-shrinking habitat for wild animals. Wolves in particular have been squeezed wherever they have existed by human expansion into unsurvivably small areas. The wolves that killed Ms. Berner are currently being hunted to be exterminated, but it is not because they we in some way diseased or deranged. In their natural state, wolves target prey that is easily isolated, small enough to take down without risk of injury, and slow enough to not outrun them in pursuit. Any human, male or female regardless of size, jogging alone in Alaska meets all of these criteria. While anti-wolf groups will undoubtedly grab hold of these headlines to make a concerted case for elimination of wild wolves in America, surprisingly, Ms. Berner's own father is able to keep things in remarkable perspective: "They're just doing what wolves do," Berner said. "Their nature happened to kill my daughter, but I don't have any anger towards wolves."
So what can we learn from this terrible tragedy? Any time we travel into wild spaces we are taking a risk. As human development continues to expand exponetially and further encroach on previously wild areas, encounters between wild animals and humans become more and more inevitable. Any time you're in the habitat of predatory or potentially dangerous animals you need to be aware and take precautions. When in areas where mountain lions, brown/grizzly bears, or wolves are known to live, don't ever travel alone and always carry some sort of emergency deterrent such as bear spray. While bear spray will not guarantee escape from an attack, the highly concentrated pepper spray will buy valuable time by making each of these species think twice about advancing further. Always be aware of your surroundings - mp3 players and the like have their place, but can be dangerous distractions outside of town limits. Being aware may make the difference between being able to scare off a predator and not, or avoiding any number of other potential dangers. Respect the power of nature and give it your full, undivided attention at all times. Know the potential dangers of the situations you enter and learn the skills necessary to respond should disaster strike.
Be safe out there.