A review: What we know about timber wolf attacks

Spooner, Wis. — Wolves. Just that single word brings out a long list of emotions no matter on which side of the issue you fall.

To just categorize Wisconsin residents as wolf haters or wolf lovers, though, is too simplistic. Most people agree there’s a place for timber wolves in outdoor Wisconsin, but the animal has to be managed by the state.

Along with the states of Minnesota and Michigan, Wisconsin was doing this – and doing it well – until an East Coast federal judge came down on the side of animal rights activists in December 2014. With that ruling, the Great Lakes states timber wolf went back on the federal endangered species list. That ruling came from U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, who said the three states’ management plans – which allowed hunting and, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the trapping of wolves – don’t provide enough protection. She said at that time wolves had not come close to repopulating their historic range in the three states and beyond.

Wolf numbers have grown to a modern day record number in Wisconsin and, along with this increase, the public’s concern over even more predation on deer, elk, pets and livestock has also risen. Some are even fearful of more human attacks similar to last year’s widely reported incident in Adams County when a hunter scouting a new area for archery deer season was attacked. Incidents like that, though, are exceedingly rare. Rare in Wisconsin’s history, but not unheard of.

The report of a wolf attack at a lumber camp near New Auburn in February of 1873 was gruesome to read. A farmer had found a pair of boots with a man’s feet still strapped in them, along with particles of clothing, bones and a dead dog. Apparently the victim put up a good fight, because there were two dead wolves nearby, too. The presumptive cause of death was that the deceased had been traveling between two logging camps when the wolves attacked during a harsh winter with little prey available. According to the report, wolves had been very problematic there at that time.

Another reported wolf attack occurred in 1885 near another Chippewa County logging camp. Three men transporting the body of a dead man on a wagon pulled by a team were able to successfully thwart an attack from a pack of wolves by using a bull whip normally used on the team.

Other than those two incidents reported in the newspapers of the time, 130 years passed before there was another wolf attack in Wisconsin and that was the Adams County attack. This does not include a January 2015 death of a woman in Vilas County’s border town of Presque Isle where suspicion initially centered on wolves. That death was never officially linked to wolves, although reporting by The Lakeland Times, of Minocqua, has left plenty of questions in the minds of local citizens – perhaps because of repeated wolf sightings in the nearby town of Marenisco, Mich. In a Feb. 1, 2016 article in The Northwoods River News, of Rhinelander, Marenisco Police Chief Bruce Mahler said he had fielded 28 in-town wolf complaints in the previous 12 months. In that report, Mahler said the complaints included calls of wolves coming out of the woods toward people walking their dogs, wolves walking down city streets and in the clinic parking lot, and a wolf killing a deer in between two homes in town.

To say wolf attacks on humans are rare would be, to say the least, an understatement. Putting things in perspective, there’s only one fatal black bear attack per year in North America. Even that statistic pales in comparison to bees that kill 53 persons a year. Bees, dogs (31), spiders (six), and snakes (five) kill more U.S. citizens each year than do bears or wolves.

For that matter, there are many more human vs. coyote incidents, probably because of coyotes’ wide distribution and, unlike wolves, their ability to adapt to human environments. In the 30 years leading up to 2006, at least 160 coyote attacks on humans have occurred in the United States. Most came from southern California in suburban areas close to undeveloped land. Another study from 2004 documented 35 incidents from 1978 to 2003, where children escaped serious or fatal injuries had the child not been rescued.

Two of the coyote attacks were fatal, one in 1981 when a 3-year-old girl from California was attacked in her driveway and died in surgery from loss of blood. The other occurred Oct. 27, 2009, when a 19-year-old Canadian girl, Taylor Mitchell, was killed by two coyotes on a hiking trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia.

Mitchell was hiking alone during the day when the attack occurred. According to a special report in Field and Stream, two nearby hikers heard the attack and called 911. Officers responded in time to shoot one of the coyotes. Mitchell died of her injuries the next day after being airlifted to a Halifax hospital. Mitchell was an rising star in the Canadian folk music scene. She was a 2009 Canadian Folk Music Award nominee.

Even though Mitchell’s attack occurred in a national park, that incident and the California fatality are looked at as involving urban coyotes that lost their fear of humans. Even though the Nova Scotia park is heavily wooded, the coyotes there associated humans with food, not hunting or trapping, the same as coyotes that have adapted to urban areas.

That is something that’s seen in areas of southeast Wisconsin, but doesn’t happen in rural Wisconsin. This just reinforces the need for state-managed and regulated wolf harvest.

One additional point in the Nova Scotia incident – those were eastern coyotes, which are larger than Great Lakes or western coyotes because of past interbreeding with wolves.

Mitchell’s death was not the only eastern coyote incident to occur in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. In 2003, a healthy adult eastern coyote bit a teenage girl on the same trail where Mitchell was mauled. A cross country skier in the same park in the winter of 2007-08 fended off a pursuing by an eastern coyote with a ski pole.

Statistics coming out of Canada and Alaska, where the wolves run bigger than the Great Lakes Region’s eastern timber wolf, show that’s where most of the documented incidents have occurred. Records also indicate quite a few come from wolves familiar with humans in some manner, but even then attacks are extremely rare. Some credit this to the fact humans stand upright, similar to what bears do to see better, not to initiate an attack as myth suggests. Research has shown bears are an animal wolves traditionally avoid, although there have been instances of Wisconsin wolves killing hibernating bears in the winter.

That’s not to say people haven’t encountered wolves in close proximity, sometimes too close for comfort. That has happened numerous times for Wisconsin hunters, farmers, loggers and even anglers. Loggers eating lunch in their truck cab on a winter day have seen deer dive under their skidders in an attempt to escape trailing wolves. Turkey hunters have had wolves come to their turkey calls, or have been challenged by wolves that have had pups nearby. Stream anglers  and archery deer hunters have had wolves “walk them out of the woods.” Hound hunters and grouse hunters have had wolves attack or encounter their dogs.

Although records vary slightly, it appears in the half-century up to 2002 there were only four fatal wolf attacks in North America. A young woman was killed in Ontario in 1996 and a 3-year-old girl in Minnesota in 1989, too, but both of those fatalities involved captive wolves, which are clearly different than predatory attacks by wild wolves. The other two fatal encounters involved rabid wolves in Alaska.

The first fatal wolf attack of the 21st century occurred in 2005 when a 22-year-old man was killed in Saskatchewan by wolves that had possibly become habituated to humans.

Five years later in March of 2010, wolves near Chignik, Alaska, killed Candice Berner,  32, a special needs teacher. She was an avid runner who stood 4 feet, 11 inches.

She was jogging on a road less than two miles from Chignik, a cluster of homes about 450 miles from Anchorage.

More than a year and a half after a Berner was found dead, the Alaska officials concluded that wolves killed her.

According to an article in the Alaska News Dispatch, Alaska Fish and Game biologist Lem Butler said it was impossible to tell if the wolves were hunting Berner or if she surprised them and was attacked.

There is little doubt, however, that the wolves killed her and then treated her as prey by feeding on her body, said Butler.

The state and local trappers killed eight wolves within 15 miles of Chignik. All but two were in good health, according to State Veterinarian Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen. So the initial conjecture that the wolves were sick or starving proved false, said Butler.

The 2005 fatal attack befell Kenton Carnegie, 22, an Ontario university student who died in November 2005 near Points North Landing, Saskatchewan, according to a report from CBC News. Carnegie was at a mining exploration camp about 460 miles northeast of Saskatoon.

When Carnegie didn’t return from a walk, searchers found his body surrounded by wolves.

There were also two non-fatal attacks on humans by wolves since 2004 – one in Minnesota and one in Saskatchewan.

In September 2013, Noah Graham, 16, of Solway, Minn., was bitten in the head at a Chippewa National Forest campground near Lake Winnibigoshish. The wolf tested negative for rabies. That attack occurred at night while Graham was lying on the ground, but not inside a tent.

In an interview at the time, Dan Stark, Minnesota DNR’s large carnivore specialist, said there have been two other attacks by wolves in Minnesota but neither resulted in injury. One happened to a logger in the 1970s, and the other was to a rabbit hunter a decade later.

Graham had multiple puncture wounds and a laceration to his head that required staples. He also received rabies shots.

On Dec. 31, 2004, Canadian miner Fred Desjarlais, in his mid-50s then, was jogging from a Key Lake mine in Saskatchewan to his motel when the wolf lunged at him from the ditch.

Desjarlais said the wolf bit him several times on the back, arm, leg and groin. He grabbed it around the neck and tried to wrestle it into submission. Each evening, Desjarlais left the mine site ahead of his co-workers, who rode in a van. Desjarlais held on, hoping his co-workers would soon arrive. They did and chased it away.

Desjarlais received stitches at a local hospital.

In a report at the time, Desjarlais said the wolf was limping when it approached.

“He wasn’t a young, healthy one,” Desjarlais said. “If he was he wouldn’t have been there. He wouldn’t have done what he did. It was an older wolf that was doing what he had to do to survive. I reacted, thank God, the way I did and survived it.”

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