By Jennifer Viegas
Alaska Rep. Don Young suggested recently (to many people's horror) that we should let wolves "solve" the homeless problem in a district of Alaska. The insensitivity of that comment aside, experts say the likelihood that wolves would attack people is simply far-fetched.
From fairy tales to phrases like "lone-wolf terrorist," wolves are vilified in our culture, and yet a fact check finds that a person is more likely to be killed by lightning, ATVs, dogs, cows, and even elevators than by a wolf.
Rep. Young, who made the comment at a House Natural Resources Committee budget hearing, argues gray wolves should be removed from the endangered species list, and told Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that if he introduced wolves in her district, "you wouldn't have a homeless problem anymore."
"Young is famous for his off-color comments, but this statement is entirely ignorant," Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center, told Discovery News.
She said that in the 21st century, only two known human deaths have been attributed to wild wolves in all of North America: one in Alaska and the other in Canada. A report authored by Mark McNay for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game confirms the cases. In both, the wolves likely were habituated to humans before the encounters.
Howell said that while wolves are predators, "Most are very shy and elusive around people."
Suzanne Stone, senior northwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife, agrees. She has tracked down wild wolf packs for research projects and, as she said, "never felt at risk or afraid."
Nevertheless, the myth that wolves pose a major threat to people persists, and at a time when their future is uncertain. Wolves used to be abundant in the United States from coast to coast, but unregulated hunting and habitat loss dramatically reduced their numbers. In 1974, the gray wolf became officially protected by the Endangered Species Act, which rescued the carnivores from the brink of extinction.
Since 2011, though, the U.S. government has been transferring their management to states. An example on how that is going happened just this week in Idaho, where the state's Department of Fish and Game killed 19 wolves in order to cull the wolf population and to increase the number of elks. The killings, according to Idaho's Lewiston Tribune, were not announced until after the wolves were dead.
"We prefer to get it done and then let folks know about it after the fact," Fish and Game spokesman Mike Keckler told the paper.
Killing wolves to benefit other species turns out to be another myth.
A study conducted late last year by Washington State University researchers Rob Wielgus and data analyst Kaylie Peebles found that lethal control of wolves actually leads to more dead sheep and cattle in the long run.
Wielgus and Peebles looked at 25 years of data, concerning lethal control of wolves, from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Interagency Annual Wolf Reports in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. They found that killing one wolf increases the odds of predations 4 percent for sheep and 5 to 6 percent for cattle the following year. If 20 wolves are killed, livestock deaths double.
Moreover, the researchers wrote that the rate of wolf mortality "is unsustainable and cannot be carried out indefinitely if federal re-listing of wolves is to be avoided."
Fear of wolves appears to be entrenched in our culture, but wolf experts like Stone hope to replace old myths with present day truths. One, according to Stone and Yellowstone Wolf Project wildlife biologist Doug Smith, is that reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 has been boosting the overall food chain. Smith and colleagues’ research is documented in the short film "How Wolves Change Rivers."
Because the presence of wolves affects where grazing animals feed, trees and plants in valleys and gorges at Yellowstone where deer and elk previously had collected are now regenerating, according to the research. Songbirds and beavers are returning. Because beavers help to provide habitat for other animals -- such as muskrats, ducks, fish, reptiles and amphibians -- these animals also got an indirect boost from the reintroduction of wolves.
As Stone said, "We need to respect these keystone predators, instead of going back to an archaic past."