Emergency situation: You’ve just set up camp and started a fire in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The temperature drops as the sun begins to set, and then the wind picks up and begins to howl. On second thought, you realize you’ve never heard the wind howl and growl. Staring into the gloom, you notice 10 pairs of glowing eyes watching your every move. What should you do?
Solution: First of all, a wolf encounter is extremely rare. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, there were about 153 wild gray wolves in Montana (at last count, in 2004). These animals also roam Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and northern Idaho.
Wolves typically avoid humans and generally are not aggressive toward them. In the rare instances that wolves have attacked humans, it has been the result of dog owners attempting to separate a wolf and a pet. That said, like most large predators, when their food supply runs low, wolves may attack any potential food source, including people. This is where things might get hairy.
Because they are highly coordinated pack hunters, wolves tend to attack mammals that are considerably larger than they are — not great news for you. A wolf’s usual prey is not people but ungulates: large, hooved animals, most often deer, elk and bison. Wolves are opportunistic hunters, typically attacking young, sick or disabled animals, seeking to first incapacitate prey by attacking flanks, and then killing by attacking the throat or face. They are also avid scavengers, chasing off other predators and eating their kills.
When encountering wolves in the wild, it’s very important to remain calm and stand tall while maintaining eye contact. Wolves in a pack are highly attuned to the behavior of the alpha (dominant) wolf, which may be male or female but is typically the largest individual; the other pack members are offspring of the alpha wolves. The alpha wolf’s actions will influence those of the rest of the pack. Signs that a wolf might be about to attack include baring teeth, growling, barking, howling and raising its hackles — in general, behavior that might be exhibited by an angry dog.
If you notice this behavior, begin to slowly back away — but do not turn your back — and don’t run. Observe the wolves carefully while you back up. If they continue to appear aggressive and begin to approach, the next step is to show the alpha wolf that you are not some defenseless ungulate: You mean business. Throwing rocks or other nearby objects might demonstrate that you’re not easy prey, and the wolves will most likely move on. Ultimately, should the wolves attack, fight back aggressively, protecting your neck and face at all costs until the wolves give up.
One additional note of caution: Wolves might carry rabies, so even a brief encounter with a wolf that involves only a minor scratch or bite should be considered a medical emergency.
JOSH PIVEN is co-author of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit joshuapiven.com.