Saturday, September 23, 2006

Wolves get a little too close in Michigan national park

Associated Press

HOUGHTON, Mich. (AP) - For campers at Isle Royale National Park, sighting a gray wolf is a rare and thrilling experience. At least, until now. Some wolves got a bit too familiar this summer, wandering into camping areas and showing little of their customary fear of people. No attacks or threatening behavior have been reported. But the close encounters prompted warnings to visitors not to feed the wolves.

"Wolves are wild animals and potentially dangerous like any wild animals,'' said Michigan Tech University biologist Rolf Peterson, who has studied wolves and moose on the Lake Superior island chain for more than 30 years.

Wolves seldom target humans, although it's not unheard of, Peterson said. In fact, a wolf attacked several people at Lake Superior Provincial Park in Ontario recently before the superintendent killed it. Such incidents could happen more often if wolves begin to identify people as a food source, Peterson said.

"The best thing is that they never associate us with a speck of food,'' said Phyllis Green, the Isle Royale superintendent.

Beavers, which were once the wolves' prey, have mostly disappeared in the area due to habitat loss. So the wolves now have little to feed on except moose, whose numbers also have nose-dived recently. A census earlier this year counted about 450 moose - fewest in the 48 years biologists have monitored the relationship between the two species in Isle Royale's closed environment.

Meanwhile, the wolf population was a healthy 30. Peterson predicts it will decline because of the food shortage, which likely is what's making them less fearful of humans. In bygone days, "maybe one visitor in a thousand'' would spot a wolf, Peterson said. "Now, when I give a talk to 50 people, there will be two or three in the audience that saw wolves.''

Other words of wisdom: If you see a wolf, get away as quickly as possible but don't run. Don't follow or howl at them. If you come upon a moose carcass, don't hang around; wolves may be nearby even if you don't see them.

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