Pamplin Media Group – OPINION: A close encounter with wolves and fear

Molly Absolon: “It doesn’t take much for our imaginations to run wild with fear of fangs and blood.

This summer, three of us were hiking the western Alaska Brooks Range when we encountered a pack of eight wolves. We were away from any help when they walked over to us, stopped, then disappeared behind a low ridge.

When they reappeared a few seconds later, they had lined up along the crest of the pass we were walking towards. They seemed ready to attack.

Then… nothing happened. Once the wolves figured out what we were, they turned around and disappeared. But during those anxious few moments, I tingled with adrenaline, fearing the worst even as I thought about how exciting it all was.

I knew, and I hope most people do, that wolf attacks on humans are extraordinarily rare. In fact, even minor attacks from predatory animals are rare, but it doesn’t take much for our imaginations to run wild with fear of fangs and blood. It’s the realization that we’re not always at the top of the food chain – that we might end up like another animal’s dinner.

Years ago, on a camping trip, I participated in a predator-prey game that gave me a taste of this vulnerability. I played the mouse, and everyone in the game was there to eat me. I spent most of the time sneaking between hiding places, fearing that any movement would make me spotted. Environmentalists call this unease the “landscape of fear”, when everything is imbued with hyper-consciousness and a sense of vigilance.

But the evidence does not support this kind of fear of wild animals. Yellowstone National Park receives an average of about 4 million visitors per year. According to park data, on average only one person is injured by a bear each year. Since 1892, bears have killed only 18 people in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

This does not, however, make the attacks that occur any less terrifying or tragic.

This summer, a woman in Montana was attacked and killed in her tent by a grizzly bear; in April, a grizzly bear killed a man near West Yellowstone, MT; and in Alaska last June, a sleeping couple was mutilated at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. This is the stuff of nightmares.

In the days of our hunter-gatherers, wild animals were a real danger, and we were right to fear them. But these days, predator attacks – horrific and terrifying as they are – only cause a handful of deaths on the planet. Still, there are plenty of other animals we should be worried about, but they usually aren’t.

According to a 2019 report by researcher Michael Conover, 47,000 people see a doctor each year after being attacked or bitten by wild animals, and about eight of them die. Most of the culprits are snakes, birds, rodents and raccoons: 27,000 bites from rodents – that is, mice, rats and squirrels – compared to less than one bite per year from wolves . Elk attacks cause three injuries per year that required medical treatment, while grizzly bears are responsible for 0.8. Alligator attacks are more common, with an average of 9 bites per year and one death. Meanwhile, some 30,000 Americans die each year in car crashes.

Yet most of us don’t think about dying when we get in the car, while many of us worry when we walk through grizzly bear country. It’s integrated. And wildlife encounters multiply as we compete with them, in their own habitat, for limited space and food.

The recent increase in puma attacks is probably due to the blurring of the urban-wild “interface”. In Colorado, the Parks and Wildlife agency has documented 25 cougar attacks since 1990, including four since 2019.

But in our national parks, rangers report a different problem: tourists get into trouble when they treat wild animals like pets. Tom Smith, a biology professor at Brigham Young University, told National Geographic that most bear attacks are preventable if people simply remember that bears react instinctively.

“Bears don’t have a single answer for humans,” Smith said. “If we unintentionally trigger this bear-against-bear response, then it’s full, and you better be ready.”

I never want to be attacked by a wild animal, but I appreciate the intensity and humility that I feel in their presence. It’s humbling to know that these wild and beautiful animals don’t care who we are or what we do. We have entered their territory, after all, and it is up to us to watch our step.

Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to sparking a lively conversation about the West. She loves exploring the West from her base in Idaho.


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