Tristin Hopper | September 15 2016
Mike Drew/Postmedia News A young wolf near a picnic area on the Banff Parkway. In the past 12 years there have been three suspected wolf attacks on adult men near Saskatchewan’s Cigar Lake, site of a large uranium mine.
A security guard hopped into her vehicle to break it up, and for a split second, her headlights illuminated a scene that was anything but a fist fight: a wolf with its jaws around the neck of a 26-year-old kitchen worker.
The truck’s arrival spooked the wolf away and the security guard, who has declined media interviews, sprang out to provide first aid.
An adult gray wolf can easily bite through even the thickest moose bones; a fleshy human neck provides little obstacle. A few more seconds and the worker likely would have been dead instead of recuperating in hospital.
“A single wolf basically pounced on him,” was what a mine representative told the press.
Facebook/Chad Glyn BaggottA 2015 photo of a wolf at the Cigar Lake mine site. This particular animal is said to have "jumped" a worker, but was fended away by a blow from a backpack.
On the very rare occasion that a North American wolf bites a human, the animal is usually rabid or surprised; a hiker startling a wolf feeding on a moose carcass, for instance.
But this wolf had apparently lain in wait for the young mining camp worker.
“The whole incident is unusual; very unusual,” said Paul Paquet, a renowned mammalian biologist who works with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and is also providing wolf consultation for Cameco, the owners of the Cigar Lake mine.
The average Canadian hunter can spend their entire lives in the wilderness without spotting a wolf. That’s why nature writers usually describe the animals with such adjectives as “elusive,” “shy” or “secretive.”
But at Cigar Lake, Facebook posts have documented wolves following hikers, wolves making themselves “visible.” Several workers have reported having wolves tail their work crews and keep watch on them from distant ridge lines.
“They are absolutely huge … they have no fear of man and come into the job sites often at night,” said former Cigar Lake worker S.J. Rowe in a message to the National Post. His closest encounter was having a wolf follow him across a frozen lake.
And the pattern is similar across the uranium-mining region of Northern Saskatchewan, one of the richest sources of uranium in the world.
On a continent that can go years without a major wolf attack, the area has hosted three suspected wolf attacks on adult men in 12 years. The attacks are all within 100 km of one another, and thus within the range of a single wolf population.
On New Year’s Eve, 2005, Cameco worker Fred Desjarlais was walking home when a wolf lunged at him from a ditch. Grabbing it around the neck, the burly Desjarlais was able to hold it down until fellow workers could come to his assistance.
Kenton Joel Carnegie Memorial web site Kenton Carnegie
At the time, Carnegie’s death was described by Saskatchewan media as the first documented case of a healthy, non-rabid North American wolf killing a human in the wild. However, in an essay, U.S. environmental historian Brett Walker disputed any inference that Carnegie was the first to die by wolf in the wild, noting “it is hard to imagine that, given wolves’ opportunistic natures, unreported killings have not taken place.”
There has since been a suspected wolf killing of a 32-year-old jogger in Alaska in 2010.
From the early stages of the investigation, Paquet was brought in to research Carnegie’s death, and still disputes the jury’s findings. Given the unreliability of witness statements and the trampling of evidence around where Carnegie’s body was found, he has maintained that a black bear attack cannot be ruled out.
“If in fact it was a wolf attack, it’s way outside what we understand and we know,” he said.
To be sure, the modern-day Canadian has a far greater chance of being injured by a squirrel-caused house fire than a wolf.
But when wolves lose their fear of humans, such as is happening in Northern Saskatchewan, the standard explanation is habituation. A wolf pack starts by learning to associate humans with easy snacks of garbage and food.
Then, as wolves get used to roaming around within sight of human settlements, they will eventually attempt what biologists call an “exploratory attack;” they will see if they can take down a human without consequence, normally one who is small or vulnerable.
“If a person gets attacked, it is likely that it is being tested by the wolf, to see if it might serve as prey,” said Dennis Murray, a conservation biologist at Trent University, writing in an email to the National Post.
Murray said this is typical of other wild canids. He described being in Yellowstone National Park several years ago when a “habituated” coyote began stalking a five-year-old child before it was chased away by nearby adults.
AP Photo/Sergiy GaschakIn this photo made in November 2014, wolves attack a deer close to Ukraine's Chernobyl.
In extreme cases, wolves will become so bold that they may start challenging humans for territory — a scenario virtually unknown since the pre-firearm Middle Ages. In the 15th century, for instance, the residents of Paris had to cope with occasional invasions of wolf packs “accustomed to eating human flesh,” as contemporary accounts put it.
In the modern era, wolf-human interactions are never allowed to progress nearly that far. Banff and Jasper national parks, for instance, face constant pressure from wolves looking to capitalize on unattended camp sites. Behind the scenes, though, Parks Canada maintains a round-the-clock vigil to ensure that invading wolves are constantly reminded that they are not welcome.
Parks Canada A grey wolf in Banff National Park.
In June, for instance, park officials had to shoot a female alpha wolf as she attempted to lead her pack into the Banff town site.
“Anytime wolves come into a built-up area … we’ll go in and aggressively haze the animal out of that area,” Bill Hunt, a Banff resource conservation manager, told CBC earlier this year.
Cameco hasn’t ignored the problem. After the 2005 attacks, the company installed fencing around its dump, drew up wolf training material for its employees and buckled down on hazing persistent wolves.
“Workers are encouraged to report all wildlife sightings to the site safety or environment departments at our operations,” Gord Struthers, a Cameco representative, told the National Post by email.
“Scare cannons” are brought in for persistent wolves and, if they keep coming back, Saskatchewan law allows that “lethal means” can be used as a last resort.
However, a Cameco report to investors in 2015 noted that its Cigar Lake operation was sanctioned by the provincial government for “failure to maintain electrical fencing around the active refuse trenching at the site.” Dumps, of course, are the main “gateway drug” for a habituated wolf.
“The facility was being regularly inspected (and) maintained prior to 2014 but bears and wolves got through the fences on a number of occasions,” said Struthers.
Following this latest attack, the company has once again opened the books on its wolf strategy, and brought in Paquet to review its wildlife management practices.
Peter Wilson / StarPhoenixCigar Lake uranium mine site in Northern Saskatchewan June 16, 2009.
The Northern Saskatchewan wolf is a hungrier animal than its cousins in Banff or the B.C. coast — unlike in lusher areas to the south, there are no easy meals of salmon streams or sprawling deer herds near the Northwest Territories border, making these wolves a bit more willing to dig in when they find a persistent source of food.
They also range across hundreds of kilometres, meaning that even if there is no food to be had at Cigar Lake, the wolves may continue to be “spoiled” by an unguarded campsite or trapper’s cabin deep in the woods.
Most troubling of all, human habituation can be “passed down through wolf generations,” said Murray.
Wolves may be growing up in a world in which they’ve never known a fear of humans, and where they’ve been taught that the sight of square structures and bipeds is indicative of an easy meal.
“Wolves rewrite the book on how they behave all the time,” said Paquet. “We don’t really know everything about them.”