No howling error: environmentalists sure wolves are back in Madrid

Animals filmed in mountains north of capital, despite official skepticism

One of the seven wolves that the trio of volunteers have filmed in Madrid.
One of the seven wolves that the trio of volunteers have filmed in Madrid. Diego M. Sanz / Omar Alonso

After an absence of over 60 years, wolves are back and breeding near the Spanish capital. Photographs and videos captured on the Madrid side of the Guadarrama mountain range prove the existence of seven specimens: two adults, one subadult and four pups. In recent years, wolves had ventured into the Madrid sierra and there were even reports of sporadic attacks on cattle, but until now there was no evidence that the animals were reproducing in the region -- the last record dated back to 1952.

The images were obtained by members of an environmental group called Asociación Sierra Carpetania. A source at the Madrid Environmental Department said it has no official data accrediting the species' return to the region, and added that researching a protected species such as wolves requires permits "that these people did not have. In any case, it would not be odd for a pair to have come in from the Segovia side."

The environmentalists who made the discovery say they had been on the animals' trail for over two years before they obtained the recorded confirmation. "I was driving in my car in late August 2010, observing my surroundings as usual, when I spotted a wolf," says Omar Alonso, chief forest ranger and environmental educator in the Sierra Norte area. The discovery encouraged him to start a more thorough search together with his colleagues Rubén Laso and Diego Martín, all members of the Sierra Carpetania association. "There had been attacks on livestock in the area, so we didn't think it would be odd for a specimen to show up, even if just sporadically," notes Rubén Laso.

One night they replied to our howls; it was very far away but it was enough"

Having at one point been restricted to northern areas of Spain, wolves were again seen in the provinces of Segovia and Guadalajara in the 1990s, and by 1998 they were already breeding in northern Segovia. The group of environmentalists says it was "just a matter of time" before they returned to the Madrid mountains -- a privileged habitat for wolves and other species such as roe deer and wild boar, which the wolves prey upon, despite its proximity to the capital.

"There are over 125,000 hectares of land extending through the Guadarrama river, Sierra del Rincón and the Lozoya basin, which has a very low population density," explains Alonso.

In the fall of 2010, the three men set up cameras that recorded an adult female. "It was still hard to make any conjectures, considering how far they travel," says Alonso. In the spring of the following year, the camera captured another female, this time a pregnant one.

The summer was devoted to finding their breeding area. Howling - a traditional method used to locate the species - also helped. "One night they replied; it was very far away but it was enough."

In August 2011, a year after the first wolf sighting, reward came in the form of a video showing a three-month-old pup moving around at night. "We figure they covered between 15,000 and 20,000 hectares before deciding which were the best 50 hectares for breeding," explains Laso. In 2012 they recorded a solitary adult, two pups traveling together and another specimen around two years of age. It was clear that wolves were back in Madrid.

Now, association members are waiting for regional permission to enter restricted areas and install cameras there.

Back in late 2009 it was cattle breeders, environmentalists and hikers who reported seeing wolves on the peaks of Somosierra. Experts said the creatures had penetrated the Madrid region from the Ayllón mountain range in Guadalajara and from Segovia. But it was not until September 2011 that the regional government approved an order establishing "the regulatory basis for compensation to make cattle breeding compatible with the existence of wolves and wild dogs in the Madrid region."

The Madrid government established that the populations of the endangered species of Iberian wolf (Canis lupus signatus) must coexist with "the normal development of cattle raising activities." Thus, authorities established a compensation system for damage resulting from attacks on livestock.

The compensation money is 800 euros for every dead cow, 500 for every horse and 350 euros for every sheep or goat that gets mauled. Besides that, owners are eligible for up to 350 euros of extra money for indirect damage resulting from the death of a cow or horse under five years of age, and 50 euros for every sheep or goat in the same age range. Livestock breeders must present the corpses of the dead animals or other forms of evidence to forest rangers less than 48 hours after the attack.

In 2012, there were 17 attacks against livestock attributed to wolves, according to the breeders association UPA, which talks of about 8,000 animals killed over four years. In 2011, the regional government claimed that attacks against livestock were actually being caused by wild dogs.

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