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Wolves spotted in Okanagan should be cause for caution not fear

Image Credit: PIXABAY

Reports of wolves being photographed in the Black Mountain area of Kelowna on the weekend sparked a flurry of social media responses.

While there were comments of “super cool” and “awesome” there were many negative posts and a few that were outlandish.

One person said they kill for sport and another that they will attack small children. Others suggested the wolves had wiped out the local deer and elk population.

Wolves very rarely attack humans and even less rarely kill them, according to University of Alberta adjunct zoology professor Lu Carbyn and an internationally recognized expert in wolves.

“It’s remarkable that there’s so few (attacks) because there’s a lot of interactions in the field between the two entities,” Carbyn told iNFOnews.ca. “Wolves could be more dangerous but there’s something about their behaviour that's an indication they are apprehensive about, maybe, the power of people and their ability to defend themselves.

"They really don’t attack people as often as one would have thought they could or they would.”

In the past 20 years, there are only two instances of wolves attacking and killing people in North America. The International Wolf Centre studied all wolf attacks on humans around the world between 2002 and 2020. It looked at 489 attacks, 380 of which were by rabid wolves.

In talking to his students and forestry workers, Carbyn said he has heard of “some situations that sounded awfully scary” but didn't result in actual attacks.

“Really, there were many that would be considered mock attacks or situations where wolves might have been chasing the prey and humans sort of came in between,” he said. “It appears the wolves may have been attacking the people but, in fact, they were chasing an elk or a moose and not the individual."

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Wolves, because of their size, rely on larger ungulates (deer, moose, elk, caribou) for their main source of food. They'll eat smaller animals at times - including salmon on Vancouver Island - but could not survive on on a regular diet of small animals, like mice, for long.

“Given the opportunity, quite often they will attack and kill dogs,” Carbyn said. “In many instances, there are situations where a lone wolf will actually mate with dogs. It’s either kill or mate.”

They'll rarely kill domestic cats simply because cats are not usually out in wilderness areas where the wolves live.

Kelowna wolf sighting

While wolves are plentiful throughout B.C., the sighting in the Black Mountain area is unusual simply because wolves tend to be very elusive, Lisa Lopez with WildSafeBC told iNFOnews.ca from Kamloops, where she’s based.

“They have a wide range,” she said. “They travel with their food source. The ungulates they are tending towards are moving based on seasonal changes and opportunities for finding vegetation at different times of the year so the wolves will move as well.”

She can’t say whether the unusual winter conditions this year are drawing the ungulates and, therefore, the wolves, closer to human habitation.

February also marks the start of the breeding season for wolves so the one-year-old pups are now being forced out to find their own territories and learning to fend for themselves.

Carbyn disputes the notion that wolves kill for sport. Normally they prey on the weak and sick in a heard of deer or caribou, simply because they’re easier to kill.

“That will make the herd stronger, yes, but once there are no weak ones left they will go after the healthy ones,” he said. “They have to survive and they will continue to prey on what’s available.”

And they will engage in what he calls surplus killing.

“In calving grounds, for example, in the Northwest Territories, they’re known to go into calving areas and kill as many of the calves as they can,” Carbyn said. “It’s kind of a killing spree. It’s not for the fun of it but, they’re in the process of killing so, if something comes along, they’ll kill. If there’s an overabundance of it, they may not necessarily consume it all.”

While the can cause significant damage to herd, they are not likely to wipe them out simply because their own numbers will weaken and die as food supplies dwindle.

The International Wolf Centre report does cite a number of other serious cases of wolf-human encounters in North America.

For example, at Lake Winnibigoshish, Minnesota, a 16-year-old boy had his head seriously bitten as he was lying on the ground preparing to sleep. He managed to chase the wolf away. The wolf was later found to have an major deformity to its jaws  and brain, which affected its ability to hunt.

In 2020, a man in his 70s was attacked as he was about to enter his home after a party in Port Edward (near Prince Rupert).

At that time there were numerous wolves feeding at the local landfill and roaming the area with no fear of humans. They were also attacking dogs both on and off leash, as well as the local feral domestic cats.

In 2019, a wolf in Banff National Park tried to force its way into a tent. It was chased off after biting the father’s hands and arms. It was old and in poor condition.

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So, what to do about wolves approaching within Kelowna city limits?

Some on social media simply said to kill them. Hunters in B.C. are allowed to kill up to three wolves a year with no species licence required but that's not allowed within city limits. And that may be extreme, given how rare it is for them to attack.

“Considering that there are close to 60,000 wolves in North America and 15,000 in Europe, all sharing space with hundreds of millions of people, it is apparent that the risks associated with a wolf attack are above zero, but far too low to calculate,” the International Wolf Centre report says.

“If you see a wolf, you don’t necessarily have to be very fearful of it,” Carbyn said. “You can’t outrun them so you have to put up an aggressive front. You can pick up rocks or you can pick up a stick or whatever. You can throw up your arms and scream at them. It’s nice if you have two or three people together. That always works.”

Or there could be a more passive approach.

“A wolf might just be watching you and you’re watching it,” Carbyn said. “That’s almost invariably the case. You go away and he goes away. Take your pictures and let him go.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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