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Keeping Sled Dogs Safe From Wolves

by Bridget Schwafel, December 2007

I was fascinated in the change in wolf behavior seen this winter and occasionally in the past, so I gathered some information, and hope that some of you might find it useful to help keep your dogs safe. Mostly it's common sense. I don't know if the wolves are still in the area, but you never know when it will happen again.

s/Bridget Schwafel

Keeping Sled Dogs Safe From Wolves in Fairbanks

Occasional incidents of wolves attacking dogs have been reported ever since dogs have been in wolves’ territory. What’s unusual about the Fairbanks area attacks is that wolves are operating in residential areas. Though wolves can travel hundreds of miles, the recent incidents of wolf attacks on dogs have been well within the range of one wolf pack. According to Cathy Harms from ADF&G, the pack is keeping relatively close within a range of about 50 square miles, which she thinks is because the area currently has a high density of moose.

Wolves are quick to learn, though their shyness generally keeps them away from people and their pets. In the recent cases around the Chena Hot Springs Road and North Pole areas, the pack of wolves has learned that dogs are good food and easy prey. So far they have taken loose pets at night or in the early morning hours. One dog had been injured after being hit by a car. Though it is unusual for a pack to be so bold to forage in areas inhabited and frequented by people, this pack has been approaching human residences far more often than would normally occur. Harms said it doesn’t appear to be a catastrophic environmental issue or related to disease or malnutrition. However, a hunter who took three wolves from near Rose Hip recently reported they were extremely thin, and practically skin and bones. There may be plenty of moose around, but there is little snow and moose can more easily get away from wolves. It’s also a high rabbit year, but reportedly they are full of worms.

Which leads to the question of whether the wolves may also be suffering from worms, lice, or some other ailment that prevents them from keeping weight on. There doesn’t appear to be any connection to rabies, as in the recent case of the wolves taking dogs in Marshall. There have been no documented cases of rabies erupting in the interior, and there is no reason to suspect this disease in the pack. Rather, the change in behavior seems to be that the wolves have learned that dogs are an easy meal.

As long as residential areas encroach on wolf habitat, animal owners must be diligent in keeping their animals safe. No matter how big or tough or fast your dog is, it’s no match for a wolf, especially if they’re attacking as a pack. Wolves are elusive and shy, they tend to naturally stay away from residential areas and are primarily most active at night. Light may cause wolves to stay in shadows, but this pack has approached residents and is unpredictable. Keep these guidelines in mind to keep your sled dogs safe from wolves:

  • Don’t let your dogs run loose, especially at night.
  • Keep dogs in a fenced area or inside a building.
  • Check out commotion in your dog yard immediately.
  • Human urine around the perimeter of the dog yard may act as a deterrent.

If you have wolves in or near your dog yard drive them away with a lot of loud, boisterous commotion. Lights alone are not a deterrent. Have firecrackers, fireworks, or a gun ready to use to scare away the wolves. You may have to repeat this. If you don’t have any of these things, you can try banging pots and pans, but they may still come back, so be alert and get the dogs out of their reach. For those of you with dog boxes on your trucks, tuck your dogs into dog boxes at night when wolves are in the area.

How do you tell whether you have wolves or moose? When it’s a moose, the dogs all look in one direction right toward the moose. If the dogs are looking in all directions and are frantic and spooked, it’s wolves. Wolves post themselves in military fashion, just out of sight all around the dog yard. Iditarod and Quest racer, Suzan Amundsen lost a dog right out of her dog yard a few years back. She said the wolves didn’t use the trails, but came streaming straight in through the trees like a broad military front. An astute observer of wolves from her many years on the back of a dog sled, Amundsen says she was on high alert the night they were there, had lights on in the dog yard and was ready to chase them away, but the wolves had a coordinated method where they watched the dog yard for hours, then a large male swooped through once while the rest waited in the woods just out of view. Within a few hours two wolves ran in, swiftly pulled a dog out of it’s harness before Amundsen had a chance to do anything, and ran off into the woods with the it, eating it’s intestines and liver.

If you have wolves threatening, injuring, or killing your dogs you can legally shoot them. In Alaska, it’s legal to kill animals in protection of life and property. Also, hunting and trapping season is open. So, if you shoot a wolf and have a license you can keep the skin. If you shoot one and you don’t have a license, you still have to skin the wolf and then surrender it to ADF&G. You can do yourself a favor and get a current hunting license for $25 (online at www.admin.adfg.state.ak.us/license). Because it is hunting season, it will be a surprise if these wolves stick around very long or aren’t taken by hunters.

Pets aside, when it comes to our children it is better to err on the side of caution. Children are safer when accompanied by an adult when they are outside, and especially in the dark. Children are smaller and are more likely than adults to move in ways that may look like prey to wolves. There’s no need to panic, but we do live in the middle of wildlife habitat, so being aware of what’s around us and how to behave in a safe and appropriate manner is just common sense. With the wolves around, dogs running loose in the middle of the night might as well put a target on their side.

It’s not unheard of for wolves to attack people. Recently there were stories in the news confirming an attack in Icy Bay, in Southeast Alaska and in northern Saskatchewan, Canada. In other countries (though not on the North American continent) wolves take a significant number of people every year where wolves are known to be a significant problem and attacks on people occur regularly. In India for instance, 200-400 people are killed by wolves each year. There, wolves have learned that people are an easy target that don’t put up much of a fight. Wolves attacking people on the North American continent, however, is almost unheard of, so when an attack is confirmed, such as the ones in Icy Bay and Canada, it makes big news. The reality is that wolf attacks on people are very rare in Alaska and North America.

There are also a couple of threads on Sled Dog Central that you might find interesting and to which you can add your own comments and experiences:

http://www.sleddogcentral.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=279   http://www.sleddogcentral.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=8424

Current newspaper articles:

Fairbanks News Miner:

Anchorage Daily News:


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