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Wolves Aren't So Big Or Bad

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    Heather Hardy is being extra careful ever since she and her four young children watched a wolf chase her Great Dane to within 30 feet of their house near Reserve.
    "It was really close, right in my front yard," she said. "It was just the scariest thing ever. It was horrible."
    Eight-year-old Ty Gatlin, who lives with his family on a ranch where lobos have killed livestock, has panic attacks about wolves and is too scared to play outside without his parents nearby.
    "I just don't like 'em very much because they kill things," he said.
    The Hardys, the Gatlins and other families in the Gila country of southwest New Mexico are afraid the reintroduced Mexican gray wolves that are living in the wild around them will attack a child.
    Their fears are not completely unfounded. But based on the history of wolf attacks on humans, the fears may be out of proportion to the real danger.
    In the past 100 years, there have been fewer than 30 documented attacks by wild wolves on humans in North America. Only two people died— Inuits in Alaska who contracted rabies from wolf bites in the 1940s, according to reports compiled by scientists.
    By comparison, domestic dogs bite 1 million people and kill 16 to 18 people every year in the United States.
    Other wild animals pose a greater danger than wolves. There are an estimated 25 black bear attacks a year in North America, with one fatal attack every three years. Between 1981 and 2000, there were 43 attacks by mountain lions, eight of them fatal. Venomous snakes bite 8,000 Americans a year.
    Those numbers come from "The fear of wolves: A review of wolf attacks on humans," a 2002 scientific report published by the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, a network of groups and experts working toward wild carnivore populations that coexist with people.
    "It is now widely accepted by biologists that healthy, wild wolves present little threat to people," Mark McNay wrote in his 2002 report, "A Case History of Wolf-Human Encounters in Alaska and Canada."
    Another report, posted on the Internet site of the Abundant Wildlife Society of North America and on www.natureswolves.com— which also has a link to buy "Save a Rancher. Kill a Wolf!" bumper stickers— documents many of the same attacks.
Back to nature
    There are approximately 50 wild wolves in southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona as part of a government reintroduction program to restore the endangered Mexican gray wolf.
    Minnesota has 3,000 wild wolves, half of them in areas where people live but has had only two wolf attacks in memory or documented, said L. David Mech, a noted wolf biologist and founder of the International Wolf Center in Minnesota.
    Neither of those people was injured, and there were extenuating circumstances in each case— in one, a hunter was wearing a jacket covered in buck scent in 1982 and in the other, a wolf jumped at a dog that was held in a logger's arms in 1970.
    In fact, wolf attacks have rarely led to serious injury even though a wolf attacking a person in the way it attacks prey would be deadly, Mech said.
    "I personally don't think that in general wolves are a danger," said John Morgart, Mexican wolf recovery coordinator. "For the most part, they see humans as something to fear."
    In the seven years since they were released in the Southwest, no Mexican gray wolves have attacked people, Morgart added.
    "It's just a matter of time," said Fred Galley, an Albuquerque resident who owns the Rainy Mesa Ranch east of Reserve. "We've had some very close encounters."
    Ranchers say they have heard accounts of attacks by Mexican wolves in the Southwest, but they have not been documented.
    Under the rules of the reintroduction program, anyone can kill a wolf in defense of a human life. Ranchers worry that nobody will believe they felt threatened.
    "How do you think it'll be when a rancher kills a wolf and says, 'He was threatening me'?" asked Don Gatlin, manager of the Rainy Mesa Ranch and Ty's father.
    The fear of wolf attacks on people is the latest source of animosity in the testy relationship between wolf advocates and ranchers.
    At recent public meetings, one rural resident suggested city folk should camp in an enclosure with wolves if they're really not scared, and wolf advocates sometimes scoffed at ranchers' suggestions that Mexican wolves will attack children.
    Craig Miller of Defenders of Wildlife, which compensates ranchers for losses and works with them to minimize wolf-livestock conflicts, said the recent animosity is inhibiting the potential for cooperation.
    "There is a coordinated exaggeration to try to capture the political attention because some of the cowboys think they'll be able to kill the program," Miller added.
    If that's the case, it's working. Gov. Bill Richardson has appointed a task force to look into several concerns rural residents have about wolves, including public safety. It will meet for the first time Wednesday in Reserve.
A breed apart
    Residents of Catron County say the Mexican gray wolves— some of them raised in captivity— are more dangerous than wild wolves in other parts of North America or other wild animals because they're not scared of people.
    They describe shouting, throwing rocks and shooting over the wolves' heads just to get the animals to leave.
    "The wolf doesn't run from me like a coyote," Don Gatlin said. "They dang sure ain't going to be scared of a little bitty kid."
    Mexican gray wolf biologists insist the animals are not habituated to people.
    "A lot of what happens out there as far as human contact is misunderstood," Morgart said, adding that a wolf that doesn't run from people is likely displaying curiosity and not bent on attack.
    The Gatlins don't let Ty or his 5-year-old sister, DeLanie, play outside unsupervised and they are constantly trying to reassure Ty— who has watched a wolf chase his colt, seen cows killed by wolves and heard them howl at night.
    "If our son can't see us when we're riding, he panics," Carlie Gatlin said at a public meeting in Reserve last month. "He has cold panic attacks."
    Hardy, a single mother, is also too scared to let her children— ages 1, 2, 7 and 9— play outside without her.
    "It's ridiculous," she said. "I feel like they're in jail."
    Wolf biologist Mech said that even though the risks of a attack are tiny, caution is smart.
    "The only fear they might have to have is if they have young children playing outside, especially if there are dogs around the children," he said. "That could be an attractant to wolves."
    Mech said he wouldn't allow small children to play unsupervised with big dogs or in bear country— with or without wolves around.
    "The danger has to be put in perspective," added Michael Robinson, a resident of Pinos Altos and representative of the Center for Biological Diversity. "There's no reason to be more paranoid about wolves than any other wild animals."