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Wolves & Human Safety

Should Montanans be concerned about public safety?

The gray wolf is a very adaptable species. World-wide, wolves and people live in closer proximity than many thought possible. In the contiguous United States, wolves are not confined to the wilderness. In Montana, more wolves actually live outside backcountry wilderness areas than live within them, increasing the potential for interaction between people and wolves.

Though curious, wolves generally fear people and rarely pose a threat to human safety. However, there have been many cases of human injuries and a few deaths due to wolves in North America over the last 100 years. The main contributing factors were habituation to people, conditioning to human foods, rabies infections, and the presence of domestic dogs.

As recently as the fall of 2005, a man was apparently killed by a pack of four wolves in a remote camp in Northern Saskatchewan. Although the case is still under investigation, habituation to people combined with receiving food rewards led the four wolves to become very bold and aggressive toward people. But overall, wolf attacks on people are and always have been rare compared to other wildlife species, both large and small. Most are preventable.

It is unusual for wild wolves to associate or interact with people, linger near buildings, livestock, or domestic dogs. This behavior is more typical of a habituated or food-conditioned animal, a released captive wolf, or a released wolf-dog hybrid.

Wild wolves generally have some place to be and something to do. Wolves do not seek out or loiter around areas of human settlement, but may be seen near them.

What are my chances of seeing a wolf?

Wolves will use natural habitats in close proximity to humans, particularly in forested areas and other settings sometimes called the "urban-wildland interface." For this reason, gray wolves may be seen more often than other large carnivores such as mountain lions or black bears. Wolves will commonly use roads, utility corridors, and railroad rights-of-way as travel routes. They will even scavenge road-killed animals in borrow pits. Tracks and scats are often found on roads.

Wolves also feed and rest in open areas with good visibility, whereas lions tend to hide their kills and feed or rest in dense vegetation. Wolves will also travel across openings in forest cover or natural meadows in ways that mountain lions or bears do not. And because wolves live in packs, more than one may be seen at a time.

What should I do to minimize my chances of having a wolf encounter?

Wild animals are best left wild and observed from a distance. However, wild animals can gradually lose their fear of people through increasingly frequent contact and receiving food rewards for their boldness. This is especially true of wolves and bears. Bold wolves or bears are more likely to approach humans and human-populated areas when they are positively rewarded for doing so.

Due to their social nature and ability to learn rapidly, wolves can become habituated and lose their fear of humans in a relatively short time. With people and wolves living in closer proximity, it is our responsibility to take simple steps to ensure wolves stay wild and keep a safe distance from humans. Most encounters could have been prevented.

Please follow these guidelines:

  • respect wolves for the large wild animal they are and for their ability to kill prey ten times their size
  • resist the temptations to approach wolves or entice them to come towards you; do not let them get close to you
  • do not feed wolves or leave food outdoors, including pet food
  • do not approach fresh wolf kills, dens, or rendezvous sites
  • do not offer food to wolves from vehicles or near your residence
  • do everything you can to avoid teaching wolves to be comfortable around or lose their fear of people
  • do not let them become comfortable near human-inhabited areas
  • report wolves that seem comfortable around people, seek human food or frequent human areas to FWP; early intervention keeps a problem from getting worse and could even prevent a human injury

What should I do if I have a wolf encounter?

Do everything you can to avoid habituating wolves in the first place. Do not let them get too close to you, or become comfortable around human dwellings or inhabited areas. As for all wildlife, do not provide artificial food sources.

Wolves can be aggressive toward domestic dogs because the wolf views the dog as a "trespassing wolf" that should be driven away or killed. Wolves could be aggressive towards dogs any time, but especially leading up to and during the breeding season (December - February) and the denning period (April - May), or if wolf pups are near by.

If you encounter a wolf and your dog is present, bring your dog to heel at your side as soon as possible. Standing between your dog and the wolf usually ends an encounter. Do not try and break up a physical fight between the wolf and your dog, to avoid any risk of injury to yourself.

If a wolf approaches you or you surprise a wolf:

  • stand tall and make yourself look larger
  • act aggressively towards it -- make noise and throw objects
  • calmly, but slowly back away and maintain eye contact
  • if the wolf does not run away immediately, continue making yourself large, maintaining eye contact, and backing away
  • do not turn your back on the wolf and do not runaway

Despite being federally protected, the Endangered Species Act contains a provision that anyone can kill a wolf in self-defense or in defense of others when there is imminent danger. Report any close encounters to FWP within 24 hours.