Death in Canada could alter Wisconsin's wolf debate
BY LEE BERGQUISTMilwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE - The grisly circumstances surrounding the death of a 22-year-old man in northern Saskatchewan is likely to influence the debate over wolf policy in Wisconsin.
On Nov. 8, student Joel Carnegie was walking alone near a remote camp owned by a mining exploration company when it is believed that he was killed by wolves.
Though an investigation is continuing, some wolves in the area had been attracted to a garbage dump and appeared to be less fearful of humans. Thus far authorities said Carnegie's death is thought to be the first documented case in the wild of healthy wolves killing a human in North America since 1900.
"I think you can safely say that wolf attacks are rare, and fatal attacks are unknown," said Paul Paquet, a wolf biologist at the University of Calgary who is helping to investigate the death for provincial authorities.
"So this attack is really exceptional."
In Wisconsin, citizens and officials who are involved in wolf policy say the purported attack will shape the wolf debate at a time when the population of the animal is growing in the state.
Wolf packs, operating in areas of 20 to 120 square miles, cover the northern one-third of the state and portions of central Wisconsin.
The Department of Natural Resources estimated the state's gray wolf population was at 425 to 455 during the 2004-`05 winter - up from 373 to 410 wolves the previous winter.
The gray wolf is listed as a state-protected wild animal by the Wisconsin DNR. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists wolves as federally endangered.
It is illegal for citizens to shoot a wolf.
The death in Saskatchewan "will change the semantics of the discussion," said Pam Troxell, coordinator of the Timber Wolf Alliance in Ashland, Wis.
"People have already talked to me, `if it happened up there, will it happen here?'"
Adrian Wydeven, Wisconsin's top wolf expert, said the likelihood of a human being killed by a wolf is a "possibility, but at the same time, it would be a very rare event." State officials are not aware of any wolf attack on humans in Wisconsin, he said.
But Wydeven, a DNR biologist, agreed that Carnegie's death is likely to be brought up as Wisconsin's wolf policy evolves.
"I think that it will be another factor in the debate - that wolves can kill people," he said.
That's because wolf advocates have repeatedly asserted over the years that wolves have never killed humans in North America, said Eric Koens, a member of the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association who has been active on wolf matters.
"The pro-wolf people have been making excuses for years ... that wolves avoid people, they have never killed people," said Koens, a cattle farmer in Rusk County, Wis.
"Personally, this doesn't surprise me.
"If you have a pack of wolves, I don't know why people would suspect that they wouldn't prey on humans when it is well known that wolf packs can take down an adult cow, moose and buffalo."
As the wolf population has rebounded, livestock farmers have pushed authorities to kill wolves that venture onto farmers' property and harass or kill livestock.
Authorities in Wisconsin killed 29 wolves between April and September until officials were required to stop after a federal court ruling, Wydeven said.
Bear hunters also are complaining that wolves are killing their dogs.
Troxell said groups such as the Timber Wolf Alliance have tried to emphasize the need for the public to steer clear of wolves.
"Now I think the discussion will be a little different," she said. "I think there will be a lot of defending by biologists and people like ourselves."
Carnegie's body was found at Points North Landing near Wollaston Lake in the northern boreal forest. Paquet, who has visited the area as part of his investigation, likened it to "Wisconsin and Michigan with stunted trees," Paquet said.
Though very remote, the area has experienced an influx of industrial activity - especially uranium mining and oil and gas exploration, Paquet said.
A key finding thus far is that Points North Landing has garbage dumps that have attracted wolves.
Paquet also said that the wolves might have been fed by workers. Between two and four wolves are believed to have attacked Carnegie.
In other instances of wolf attacks in North America, especially in Canada, Paquet said that garbage has usually been available to wolves, allowing them to become less fearful of humans.
That's a problem.
"This is a situation that could lead to additional attacks," Paquet said.
And there are parallels to states such as Wisconsin, he said, where there are significant wolf populations and growing numbers of people in areas where the wolves live.
"It creates a situation where a lot of city folks are moving in, there is inadequate securing of garbage, the wolves are habituating and ... there are many people working in these areas where they have very little background with wildlife."
In Wisconsin, the DNR is getting reports of wolves who are feeding on dead animals along roadsides and don't run away when cars approach.
"Once they become habituated to people, they are no longer fearful of people and there is more of a chance of biting," Wydeven said.
"This sort of illustrates the situation with animals with predatory instincts, but they have no fear of people and then they can sometimes turn on people."
There have been other wolf attacks, and in an area near where Carnegie was killed, Paquet said he interviewed a worker who was jogging to work in 2004 from his quarters when he was attacked by a lone wolf.
The worker, who was also an artist and painted pictures of wolves, was in excellent physical condition - over 6 feet tall and weighed 220 pounds. Though he was able to get the wolf in a headlock and escape, he was "pretty traumatized, he was not a happy camper and (as he wrestled with the wolf) wondered where the rest of them were," Paquet said.
Wolves were considered extirpated in Wisconsin from 1960 through about 1974, but then some animals ventured in from Minnesota without a state-sanctioned reintroduction plan.
As their numbers grew in the United States, the Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency, removed some protections of wolves in 2003 and downgraded the status of the wolf in Wisconsin from endangered to threatened.
The change permitted authorities to shoot problem wolves, but the plan was challenged. A federal judge agreed with opponents who said the government's actions would roll back protections in some eastern states that had little or no wolf populations. Federal officials were required to re-instate the endangered species protections for wolves.
The DNR expects to receive a new permit from the federal government early next year that would allow killing some problem wolves