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After wolf bites dog, Thompson Falls residents concerned about catching disease

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Fred Fagan of Thompson Falls shows one of the puncture wounds inflicted by wolves on his Australian shepherd, Joker, earlier this month. Joker’s sister, Maestro, looks on. Photo by VINCE DEVLIN/Missoulian

THOMPSON FALLS - Fred Fagan and his wife were asleep in the wee hours of May 1 when their two Australian shepherds, Joker and Maestro, started barking out in the yard.

They heard the dogs race around the corner of their home east of Thompson Falls, then suddenly, the barking turned into a painful yelp.

"Blood-curdling," Fagan describes it. "I got out of bed, threw my pants on, and headed out the other side of the house."

On his way he grabbed a pistol and a spotlight. Fagan was pretty sure what was going on.

The wolves were back.

Since the state began tossing animal carcasses, primarily wildlife killed by motorists, in a compost pile behind a Montana Department of Transportation facility next to his property in 2007, Fagan says wolves have been regulars in the rural neighborhood, attracted by the pile.

"The compost pile doesn't bother me," Fagan says, "but the fact that there's no fence around it does."

Dogs dig through the piles of sawdust to get to the bones and hides, he says.

So, he says, do wolves, whose tracks can be found near the piles.

The animals cart the bones off and, Fagan says, spread them over a good four acres of land around his house. Indeed, it's hard to walk far without seeing plenty of evidence of it.

The Department of Transportation has assured Fagan an electric fence will soon be constructed around the compost pile.

Fagan is glad about that. But he worries whether the wolves, denied access to the pile, won't now come looking for his geese, ducks, chickens or even horses, or his neighbor's cows.

And mostly, he worries that the wolves may have already brought hydatid tapeworm into his life.


"Frankly, it's my belief that this is a major public health hazard," state Sen. Greg Hinkle, a Republican from Thompson Falls, says. "People involved in the wolf introduction program try to play it down, but my concern is people weren't made aware of the danger in the first place."

Kent Laudon, Region 1 wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says the chances of humans contracting the disease from wolves - who are not the only carriers - are extremely low.

"When you break it down, the hype is overstating the actual danger," Laudon says. "Essentially it means you've come in contact with eggs in wolf scat. Most people wouldn't handle wolf scat to begin with. I do all the time in my job, but I take regular precautions, wear gloves and wash my hands after. I've handled hundreds of wolves, both alive and dead, as well.

"You don't handle scat and eat a sandwich afterward, and most people, without knowing anything else in the world, know that."

But animals, like the family pet, that roll in infected scat can collect the eggs on their fur. Petting a dog, then touching your mouth or food, can spread it as well.

The eggs, too small to be seen, must be ingested, and can't be spread through the air, experts say.

Fagan says one official told him he should keep his dogs indoors if he's worried about wolf attacks, but Fagan wonders - given the presence of wolves, and their scat, around his property - if that wouldn't just infest his house.

Hinkle has held public meetings in the area where he cites evidence from scientists often associated with the anti-wolf crowd - such as Delane Kritsky of Idaho State University and Valerius Geist of the University of Calgary - as well as Russian author Will Graves when he talks about the hydatid tapeworm.

"I am not opposed to the wolf," Hinkle says. "I think they should have been protected from the get-go, but their numbers controlled." At the meetings, he says, "I'm just articulating evidence I have found."

Hinkle says he appreciates the response from the Department of Transportation concerning the compost pile, but says his letters to the departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services have received no response.

"I want them to test the ground, and find out if there's any chance of Fred and his neighbors being exposed," he says


Out in the yard that night, Fagan swept the spotlight along the fence at the back of his property.

On the second sweep, he picked up three sets of eyes.

"I didn't shoot, because I didn't know where these guys were yet," he says, nodding toward Joker and Maestro. "I got within 30 feet of them before they took off."

The wolves from the Silcox Pack had attacked Joker, he discovered, leaving puncture wounds on the dog's side, behind one ear and under all four legs. The latter led Fagan to believe the wolves were trying to drag the dog into the forest before he came out of the house.

That night, he and his wife "butterflied" the largest wound - on Joker's side - closed, and took him into the veterinarian the next morning. They're getting de-worming medicine for both Joker and Maestro.

But Fagan says state officials need to be more concerned about a wolf pack running so close to humans, and about the potential of disease being spread.

"I think it's an out-and-out health hazard," he says. "If I come outside to work on a rig and I'm in a 100 percent contaminated area, how do I get away from it? I don't care how many times you wash your hands."

Laudon says fencing the compost pile, where carcasses are buried in sawdust, is the first priority, and he's offered to get a temporary one set up if there's any delay in a permanent structure.

"That pack does spend time in the valley," he says, "but the compost pile is a further attractant. It'd be good to get that buttoned up."

Once that happens, Laudon thinks the wolves will return to hunting big game.

"There's abundant game in the valley, a lot of deer," he says. "Once they get their noses zapped, I think they'll stay away" from the compost pile.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at


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