I walk in the woods fairly often and although I rarely carry a gun I don’t recall ever fearing that I’d be attacked by an animal.
But then I’ve never had a wolf get within 27 yards of me.
At least not that I’m aware of.
Brian Scott, a 38-year-old hunter from Clackamas, did come that close to a wolf on Oct. 27 while looking for spike elk in the Starkey unit west of La Grande.
That distance seems to be one of the few details of Scott’s experience that is not in dispute.
An Oregon State Police officer found a shell casing from Scott’s 30.06 rifle 27 yards from the carcass of the wolf he shot and killed that day.
Scott, who reported the shooting to police and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, told officers he encountered three animals, which he believed to be coyotes. He said two of the animals seemed to be trying to get behind him, while the third ran directly at him.
“I feared for my life,” Scott told an OSP officer in a recorded interview.
Scott said he yelled at the animal and then fired a single, fatal shot.
Some people who celebrate the return of wild wolves to Oregon reacted to Scott’s story the way a dad does when his 16-year-old son claims he wrecked the car because a deer came out of nowhere and he had to swerve to miss it.
Representatives from Oregon Wild and the Center for Biological Diversity have cited in particular the examination of the wolf’s carcass, which showed that Scott’s bullet entered one shoulder and exited the other. They contend that trajectory raises doubt about Scott’s contention that the wolf was running toward him.
Those two groups and 14 others have asked Gov. Kate Brown to reopen the investigation into Scott’s killing of the wolf. The groups also cited, in a letter they wrote to Brown, an interview that Carter Niemeyer, a retired wildlife biologist, gave to the Capital Press newspaper.
Niemeyer, who was involved with the reintroduction of wolves in the Rocky Mountains in the 1990s — offspring from those wolves later migrated west to Oregon — told the Capital Press that he considers Scott’s story “very suspect.”
Niemeyer believes the bullet’s trajectory indicates the wolf was standing broadside when Scott fired, not running directly at him as Scott claims.
The bullet path is interesting, to be sure.
But as anyone knows who has even a passing knowledge of the John F. Kennedy assassination, bullets fired from heavy-caliber rifles don’t always move in predictable ways.
Nor do wolves, come to that.
Niemeyer did concede that the bullet Scott fired, or fragments of it, could have deflected off a bone, accounting for the apparent discrepancy.
Without a necropsy it’s all but impossible for anyone to say with scientific certainty whether the physical evidence supports or refutes Scott’s claim that the wolf was heading right at him when he fired.
And ODFW didn’t request a necropsy because the cause of death was beyond dispute, even if Scott’s story is not.
What struck me as especially interesting about Niemeyer’s comments to the Capital Press is when he talked about his own experiences with wolves, which are considerable. Besides which, biology, not forensics, is his area of expertise.
Niemeyer told the newspaper that he had “many, many close encounters with wolves” while working in Idaho, Oregon and other states. He said he had wolves run toward him and come within 6 to 8 feet before fleeing.
This seems to me to bolster rather than refute Scott’s claims. At least it proves, based on the experiences of a true wolf expert, that the animals’ behavior that Scott described is hardly farfetched when it comes to wolves.
Ultimately, it’s likely that no one will be able to prove conclusively whether Scott told the truth about everything that happened to him up in the Starkey forest last month. The Union County District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue charges against him for killing the wolf. I don’t imagine Scott would be likely to undergo a polygraph.
I understand the temptation to conclude that because there are no confirmed cases of a wild wolf attacking a person since the animals returned to Oregon in 1999, Scott’s entire story is suspect — or at least that his claim that he feared for his life is sketchy.
Indeed, Oregon is a pretty safe place when it comes to wildlife attacks.
Among American wildlife (those with sharp teeth, anyway; I’m not including drivers crashing into deer) the grizzly bear probably poses the greatest threat to humans, statistically speaking, and we don’t have any confirmed grizzlies in this state.
Cougars, which have killed a few people in California over the past 20 years or so, are present in Oregon, and in considerably larger numbers than wolves — about 6,600 cats compared with something like 115 wolves.
But there hasn’t been a fatal cougar attack on a person in Oregon.
These statistics are comforting, I suppose. They explain in part why I don’t feel compelled to bring a gun every time I go for a hike. I would not be so sanguine if I were planning a trip in, say, Yellowstone or Glacier national parks, where grizzlies roam.
But statistics, of course, are never perfect predictors. The aphorism that the “dice have no memory” occurs to me.
When it comes to wildlife, and in particular to carnivorous predators such as wolves and cougars, we humans certainly haven’t negotiated a non-aggression treaty.
Niemeyer is on solid biological ground when he tells the Capital Press that wolves rarely approach people, that “all my experience tells me (a wolf) would be fearful of a human.”
But no biologist, no matter the depth of his experience or knowledge, can guarantee how a particular wolf will behave in any given situation.
I find it implausible — though of course it’s not impossible — that Scott intentionally poached the wolf, and that he was aware from the start that the animal was a wolf and not a coyote. Certainly poachers don’t as a rule turn themselves into police, even if they have a well-rehearsed self-defense story.
Scott told the Capital Press that he isn’t opposed to wolves living in Oregon, and that he felt “nauseous” when he recalled killing the wolf. Scott also said he understood that by reporting what he had done, he would be subject to public scrutiny, including having people, such as Niemeyer, question his veracity.
I have, as anyone does who spends much time outdoors, occasionally wondered how I might react if an animal capable of dismantling me — a wolf certainly qualifies — acted in what seemed to me a clearly threatening manner.
I can’t say what I might do in such a circumstance.
But I’m certain that if I didn’t have a gun, I would wish mightily that I did.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.