Alaska officials confirm fatality from wolf attack

Dec 23, 2011

In a report released on Dec. 6, officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) presented its findings regarding a wolf attack that resulted in the March 2010 death of Candace Berner, a 32-yearold teacher from Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula. “All lines of evidence are consistent with the conclusion that two or more wolves killed Ms. Berner,” said Lem Butler, principal investigator for ADFG and one of the report’s authors. “The tragic encounter occurred as she jogged down the road less than two miles from the village.”

According to the report, DNA and other forensic evidence clearly implicated between two and four wolves in the attack, and directly connected one wolf, killed by department officials, to the incident. In all, six wolves were killed by officials for investigation following the attack. ADFG veterinary personnel found all but two of the wolves to be in apparent good health and were able to find no evidence of factors that may have contributed to the attack, including rabies, other diseases, defense of food or habituation to human food. The nearly two years spent between the actual attack and the announcement earlier this month were spent, says Butler, verifying the evidence. “It’s a controversial and contentious subject,” he says. We wanted to take our time and scrutinize our facts to make sure we weren’t speculating.” Butler also points out that genetic analysis is not typically the overnight process depicted on television.

Berner’s death represents the first documented case of wolves killing a human in Alaska’s history, and the second in North America, following the 2005 killing of a man in northern Saskatchewan. While human death is an unprecedented outcome, Butler indicates that aggressive encounters between humans and wolves in Alaska, although uncommon, are not unheard of. “While this is rare, it’s not the first time we’ve seen behavior that we wouldn’t normally tolerate from wolves directed towards people.” In general, he says, attacks are reported every year or two, and usually involve people accompanied by domestic dogs. “They’re pretty territorial and aggressive towards other canids,” Butler points out. “When people have dogs with them, we do see periodic cases of aggression towards the dogs.” Attacks on humans when dogs are not present do occur, he says, but are more rare. Generally, indicates Butler, those situations are defused, in one way or another, before serious injury occurs. “An adult will intervene to rescue a child under attack, or people climb a tree and wait the wolves out, things like that,” he says.

While rare, attacks on humans that result in injury have occurred. Following the 2000 attack and repeated biting of a young boy in Icy Bay, AK, by wolves, former ADFG research biologist Mark Mc- Nay set out to document the history of known attacks in Alaska and Canada. Released in 2002, Mc- Nay’s report compiled 80 cases of aggression and/or lack of fearful behavior in wolves, including 16 cases where people were bitten, sometimes severely. His paper challenged several earlier scientific documents, which asserted that wolves posed little threat to humans, and dismissed most historical accounts either as exaggeration or as misinterpretation of the encounter by the humans.

Unlike in the lower 48 states, wolves have maintained a steady population in Alaska throughout the 20th century. In the Rocky Mountain and northwest regions of the U.S., Berner’s case and others like it have served to further polarize the already contentious issue of wolf reintroduction.

While ranchers and other members of rural communities have pointed to such cases as justifiable cause for alarm, conservation groups have tended to point out the rarity of occurrences, dismiss historical accounts, and, until recently, assert that wolves had never killed a human in North America.

As is often the case, says Butler, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. He does point out that it can be difficult to rely on historical accounts, many of which cannot be verified. ”I think that a lot of people try to dismiss the stories and historical accounts entirely as myth or legend, and there may be times when that is the case. The reality is that there is no good way to go back and fact check most stories,” he says. “But to go so far as to say that attacks never happen is not accurate. It’s not like we never see this type of interaction.” Neither, says Butler, is it accurate to assume that attacks are in any way routine. “The behavior amongst wolves is really across the board,” says Butler, who has also heard accounts of wolves wandering through the middle of remote camp sites and showing no interest in people whatsoever. “Given the volume of people that are recreating in Alaska and interfacing with wolves, (aggression) is a pretty rare event. For the vast majority of people that see wolves up here, it’s a pretty benign encounter.”

The take home message, according to Butler, is that while attacks by wolves on humans are very rare, they can and do happen, and that wolves, like any other species, are unpredictable. “They are wild animals,” says Butler. “Some people say that this sort of thing never happens, but of course it can. People should be aware of this, especially if a wolf starts acting abnormally or showing aggression. They should take whatever precautions they can to make sure that the situation doesn’t escalate.” In their Dec. 6 release, Butler and the rest of ADFG expressed their condolences to the family of Ms. Berner, stating: “We hope that the report’s findings help bring closure to Ms. Berner’s family, to the community of Chignik Lake, and others affected by this sad incident.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent