BOISE — Thousands of vacationers in the West will likely see a wolf in the wild for the first time this summer, often from the road but sometimes while camping or hiking.
The federal government and state agencies that manage wolves have concise rules on what is legal in these encounters, and experts who study wolf behavior offer advice on how to handle what is likely to be an unforgettable experience.
“Wolves don’t turn and run away immediately like we’re used to with other animals,” said Carolyn Sime, gray wolf program coordinator with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. “The other thing that kind of makes it unnerving is the intensity of their eyes. It’s partly the color, and partly the intensity of the way they’re looking at you.”
Wolves nearly always blink first, experts say, but yelling will drive off a wolf as will pepper spray.
About 1,000 wolves in 140 packs live in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, steadily increasing since being reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996.
“Even though they’re fairly rare in nature, wolves are relatively visible compared to a lot of animals,” said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “There are never many of them because these are big, large carnivores. But they seem abundant because they travel the same areas people do.”
Bangs said one study found that more than 100,000 people see a wolf in Yellowstone National Park each year. For comparison, few people ever see one of the 31,000 cougars that inhabit the Western U.S.
Gray wolves have also been reintroduced along the Arizona-New Mexico border, beginning in 1998, but that population had fewer than 50 individuals at the end of 2005.
About 3,000 gray wolves inhabit northern Minnesota, and another 500 in Michigan and 500 in Wisconsin.
Male wolves average about 100 pounds and females slightly less. They often travel on roads, trails, creek bottoms and ridge tops. When resting, wolves like the same types of areas that draw humans.
“Because meadows are attractive to campers, you’re likely to run into wolf activity,” said Steve Nadeau, statewide large carnivore coordinator with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “Particularly if the meadow has game nearby — elk and deer.”
Wolf experts say that centuries of mythology — think “Little Red Riding Hood” taints present day wolf-human meetings, and that wolves tend to avoid humans.
“If you’re walking on a dark trail at midnight and you turn a corner and come across a pack of 20 wolves, enjoy them,” said Bangs. “Because they’ll be gone in a few seconds.”
In fact, wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare. But wolves might not run off so quickly if a hiker has a dog along. Northern Rockies gray wolves have killed at least 83 dogs since 1987, and last year killed 30 of their own number in territorial disputes.
“Wolves consider dogs as strange wolves,” said Bangs. “A dog may think that a wolf barking or howling is a dog that wants to play. Trust me, that is not the case.”
Other instances where wolves might act aggressively is near a den or a kill site.
“If you come into an area where you see a kill, particularly if it’s kind of fresh, back out of there and go someplace else,” said Sime.
Meeting wolves can have legal ramifications. Under the Endangered Species Act, wolves in Minnesota are listed as threatened, while wolves in Michigan, Wisconsin, northern Idaho, and northwest Montana are endangered.
Wolf populations that resulted from reintroductions are listed as “experimental, nonessential.” They include wolves south of Interstate 90 in Idaho, Montana outside the northwest corner, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico.
“Our regulations allow anyone at anytime to scare a wolf away,” said Bangs. “Just run at it and yell at it and it will run off. That’s legal to do. Just don’t hurt it.”
Pepper spray — often carried by hikers in grizzly bear country — can be used on wolves.
It’s legal to kill a wolf in self-defense.
“Expect an investigation because that is almost nonexistent,” said Bangs. “The physical evidence better back up your story.”
The penalty for illegally killing a listed wolf can range up to $100,000 and a year in jail. Bangs said that about 10 percent of Northern Rockies wolf deaths are the result of illegal kills.
Gray wolves in the Northern Rockies met the criteria for delisting in 2002. The Fish and Wildlife Service has approved plans by Idaho and Montana to manage wolves, but federal officials rejected Wyoming’s plan saying it would eliminate wolves outside Yellowstone National Park. That has stopped delisting so far.
If delisted, wolves would be treated as big game animals, possibly with hunting seasons, something Bangs said and other federal and state wolf managers favor.
Hunting would not be allowed in Yellowstone National Park, where most wolf sightings occur. But sightings are becoming more common elsewhere.
“Of all the things you have to worry about in life, wolves are probably on the bottom of the list,” said Bangs. “People who don’t know any better are nervous about wolves, but most people are like, ‘Wow, was that cool or what.’ “