Wolf Attacks More Myth Than Reality

A politician is spinning a tale about big bad wolves, but a fact check finds that people have a greater chance of being killed by an elevator than a wolf.

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."

A gray wolf (that is unlikely to attack people).

Even gray wolves like to cool off in the summer with juicy watermelons, as long as those melons are stuffed with pig ears, cheese and dog biscuits. The Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana raises the canids in captivity for research and educational purposes. Every July, the wolves get a watermelon filled with goodies.

This wolf's name is Renki.

Wolfgang, the watermelon-wielding wolf shown here, gets more than just a snack. He puts his natural instincts and abilities to use when presented with the challenge of digging treats out of a melon.

"Giving the wolves enrichment materials, like watermelons, presents the animals with an opportunity to make choices," Elizabeth Rose, the Wolf Park's managing director, told Discovery News. "Giving animals in captivity the chance to make choices helps reduce boredom and keeps their minds in shape, as well as their bodies."

Although wolves tend to hunt livelier prey than watermelons in the wild, the animals use many of the same motor skills and social behaviors they would use while foraging, hunting and sharing a kill.

Renki tends to get the most exited when he gets his watermelon treat, Rose said.

Renki defends his melon, much like a wild wolf would defend a hunk of elk. The Wolf Park staff explains the animals' behaviors to visitors during the melon party.

The Wolf Park opened in 1972 and has held the Watermelon Party for 13 years. The idea for the party came after park staff noted that the wolves were looking longingly at watermelon slices that the humans were eating during a July 4th celebration.

Rose noted that normally the staff don't eat in front of the wolves. However, on that 4th of July someone decided to let the wolf try some watermelon and a tradition was born.

The wolves will receive another seasonal treat in autumn, when the Wolf Park throws the Pumpkin Party.

Life isn't all fruit parties for these wolves. They help scientists research the behavior of canids, the animal group that contains dogs.

Some recent research has focused on the ability of wolves to learn from other wolves, as well as comparisons between dog and wolf behavior in relation to humans.

An Australian shepherd dog may be able to outwit an Irish setter, but research suggests wolves are really the top-dogs in intelligence compared with their domesticated cousins, according to Rose.

Now for a human intelligence test: What is the linguistic connection between this cantaloupe and Fiona, the wolf that is gnawing on the melon?

Answer: The word cantaloupe derived from the Italian for "singing wolf."

The village of Cantalupo, Italy may be where the melon was first bred. The village might have gotten its name from wolves that once roamed the area.

Now, real singing wolves rarely howl around Cantalupo, Italy for the same reasons that wolves face danger in many areas around the world.

In the U.S. wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2011. Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Wyoming now allow some degree of wolf hunting.

Despite humans, wolves still maintain a huge range over North America, Europe and Asia. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature list gray wolves as a species of least concern.