As wolves recolonize areas of Europe ranging widely in levels of anthropogenic impact, some people express substantial fear based on a perception of the wolf as dangerous and unpredictable, or a fear of the unknown. As a result, people living in wolf areas can experience a diminished quality of life. Fear of wolves affects human attitudes and is a recurring source of conflict in wolf management. Concerns have been raised about wolves losing their shyness due to frequent wolf-human interactions. Knowledge about how wolves behave when encountering humans may reduce fear and improve quality of life in areas with resident wolves. Such knowledge can also help identify habituated wolves, facilitating appropriate management actions.
Experiments in which human observers approach GPS-marked animals in the wild, here called experimental approaches, provide a useful tool to study human-wildlife interactions, and have been used previously with wolves. Our project has developed the first standardized protocol to compare the responses of wild wolves to experimental approaches across different habitats. We apply recent
technological advances in biologging and telemetry to obtain detailed, previously unavailable behavioral and physiological data. Modern GPS collars allow for re-programming to one-minute positioning intervals, and have accelerometers that register fine-scale body movements. Members of our consortium have already applied these technologies to study the responses of brown bears and moose to experimental approaches by humans.
During encounters with humans or human infrastructure, wolves may exhibit physiological responses which cannot be detected with conventional telemetry. Combining physiological variables such as heart rate with movement data can help understand an animal’s stress response, or the lack thereof for
habituated individuals. Approaching humans or settlements may also be related to physiological drivers like nutritional stress, which can be detected using biologgers originally developed for human patients. Hence, relating wolf behavior to physiological states can improve our understanding of their reactions to encounters with humans.
The shared challenges related to fear of wolves across their re-colonized range call for evaluating wolves’ response to humans within and between populations and along a gradient of anthropogenic impact. Applying common tools will provide knowledge applicable locally, regionally, and internationally.