Wolf Myths Continue to Threaten Gray Wolves

wolf myths

Story at-a-glance -

  • You’re more likely to be killed by lightening, an ATV accident or in an elevator than you are to be killed by a wolf
  • There have been only two human deaths due to wild wolf attacks in North America in the 21st century
  • Most cases of wolf attacks involved wolves that had become habituated to people near campgrounds or garbage dumps

By Dr. Becker

There were once hundreds of thousands of gray wolves in the U.S., but the European settlers persecuted wolves almost to the point of extinction.

The colonists depended on horses, cattle, sheep and pigs for their very survival, and wolves quickly learned that the docile animals grazing on the edge of the wild made easy targets.

"Suddenly, colonists found their livelihoods in danger, and they lashed out at wolves, both with physical violence and folklore that ensured wolf hatred would be passed down from one generation to the next," PBS explained.1

With their habitat increasingly destroyed and government bounties that encouraged their poisoning and trapping, wolves were virtually eliminated from the lower 48 states by the middle of the 1900s.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service further reported, "Wolves were hunted and killed with more passion and zeal than any other animal in U.S. history."2

Gray wolves were protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1973, but this protection was recently removed in certain areas, including the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes.3

With their numbers still recovering — there are thought to be more than 5,500 gray wolves in the lower 48 states and 7,700 to 11,200 in Alaska — these magnificent animals need all the survival help they can get. Unfortunately, myths that they're dangerous persist even to this day.

Do Wolves Attack People?

Wolves are not the human-eating predators they're portrayed to be in movies and books. You're more likely to be killed by lightning, an ATV accident or in an elevator than you are to be killed by a wolf.4

There have been only two human deaths due to wild wolf attacks in North America in the 21st century. One occurred in Canada in 2005 and involved a 22-year-old hiker.  

Although no one witnessed the attack, the circumstances suggested a wolf attack was responsible. The other occurred in Alaska in 2010 when a woman out jogging was attacked. Such attacks are extremely rare. In the last 50 years, there have been only about two-dozen non-fatal wolf attacks reported.

Most cases involved wolves that had become habituated to people near campgrounds or garbage dumps.5 As reported by National Geographic:6

"Though they almost never attack humans, wolves are considered one of the animal world's most fearsome natural villains. They do attack domestic animals, and countless wolves have been shot, trapped, and poisoned because of this tendency."

The Factors "Necessary" for a Wolf Attack

In nature, wolves tend to have extreme shyness toward humans and generally avoid people. There is perhaps no one better suited to dispel the myth of "the big bad wolf" than wolf expert L. David Mech, Ph.D.

He spent 12 summers living with a pack of wild wolves in the Arctic and said "none has ever made me feel afraid." He wrote in International Wolf magazine:7

"One got into the habit of lying outside my tent like a dog while I slept. Another let me sit among her pups and take notes while she nonchalantly howled only a few feet away.

Others once stuck their heads inside my tent and pulled my sleeping bag out; fortunately I was watching from a distance and was able to get them to drop it by letting out a sharp hoot."

He, too, explained that most cases of wolf encounters with humans involve areas where wolves have lost their fear of humans and perhaps been rewarded for doing so (such as being fed at a campsite). Mech continued:8

"While this combination of circumstances [proximity to humans, lack of fear and opportunity] certainly does not always lead to incidents in which humans are injured, it appears to be a predisposing condition.

Put simply, it is not a sufficient reason for wolf injuries to humans, but it does seem to be a necessary one.Wolves are large carnivores. Like bears, cougars and domestic dogs, they should be regarded as potentially dangerous.

This does not mean that wolves should be viewed with an unhealthy fear or that we must return to the days when wolves were regarded as demons. It only means that we should view wolves with the same healthy respect due any potentially dangerous animal."

Does Killing Wolves Protect Wildlife?

Management of gray wolves that have been stripped of their Endangered Species Act protection falls into the hands of individual states. Unfortunately, many states have now started wolf hunting seasons or, worse, killed wolves outright in the name of public safety or livestock protection.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game killed 19 wolves in 2015 in an effort to increase the number of elks. They only announced the killings after the wolves were dead.9 If you'd like to support a status review of wolves in the Northern Rockies made by Defenders of Wildlife, you can do so here.

The review could help restore Endangered Species Act protection to wolves in Idaho and other Northern Rockies states. It is another myth that killing wolves is necessary to protect wildlife.

A study by Washington State University researchers found livestock deaths double if 20 wolves are killed.10 On a federal level, conservation groups filed a lawsuit in early 2016 challenging the Wildlife Services' authority to kill wolves in Oregon.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, which kills up to 3 million animals per year, had plans to kill wolves that were attacking livestock in Washington and Oregon. The suit questions why proactive and nonlethal alternatives are not being used.11

What to Do if You Encounter a Wolf in the Wild

It's unlikely that you'll encounter a wild wolf, but if you do stand your ground and make yourself appear as large as possible. Raise your arms over your head, shout and throw stones, and it's likely the wolf will run away. Do not run away, as this will make you look like prey. Also avoid getting into a "stare down" with the wolf or turning your back on the animal.

Finally, if you frequent areas with wolves, avoid feeding the animals and don't leave food behind at campsites. This may draw wolves (and other animals) to the area and encourage them to act more aggressively toward humans.