Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?

Agriculturalists and conservationists differ on the foothold the Iberian wolf has on the peninsula No coherent management plan exists to promote coexistence

Juana Viúdez
The Iberian wolf is a species that can be hunted north of the River Duero, but is completely protected to the south.
The Iberian wolf is a species that can be hunted north of the River Duero, but is completely protected to the south.GETTY

In recent years in Spain the traditional tale of Little Red Riding Hood has been turned around to portray the wolf not as big and bad, but the victim. However, the classic version with the voracious beast still lingers in the collective imagination and a solid formula for peaceful coexistence with the species remains elusive.

Responsibility for the management of the Iberian wolf in Spain falls to the regions and policy varies greatly, while tensions between farmers and the authorities over compensation for the loss of livestock are running high in the most problematic areas of Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y León. The complaints of farmers and hunters lead to the conclusion that wolf populations are on the rise; Castilla y León has backed this viewpoint in an official report, but biologists and conservationists do not agree. The debate always revolves around the same question: what can be done to allow humans and wolves to live side-by-side, while at the same time protecting the animals and preventing them from causing damage?

The European Union's Habitats Directive established a frontier in Spain to protect the Iberian wolf: the River Duero. South of the waterway the wolf is considered of "community interest" and is therefore protected. If an animal must be killed, the regional authorities are responsible for doing so. But north of the Duero the wolf's status is less clear. In Castilla y León, Cantabria and Galicia hunting wolves is permitted, but in Asturias it is not.

Castilla y León accounts for 60 percent of the total number of wolves in Spain, according to several specialists. The region's latest conservation and management program, which is pending approval, states that the wolf population south of the Duero is rising. There are no official figures but the report cites a census carried out in 2012 and 2013, which will soon be made public. Its preliminary conclusions say that the wolf's area of distribution south of the Duero increased by 34 percent between 2007 and 2012, a finding based on the first count of wolves ever undertaken in Spain, between 1999 and 2003, which is still used as a reference point to estimate the population.

Farmers and hunters have concluded that wolf populations are on the rise

"Things haven't changed much over the past 10 years," says the report's co-author, ecologist Antonio Uzal, who works in wild animal conservation at the University of Nottingham Trent in the UK. Among the problems facing the wolf highlighted during that earlier census are pressure from authorized and illegal hunting, and the lack of viable corridors between populations, a necessity for inter-group breeding diversity. Castilla y León serves as the current meeting point between populations and is therefore considered the key by conservationists.

Regional data from 2001 recorded 149 packs, comprising around 1,500 individuals. Uzal's study, carried out with Andrés Ordiz, places the number of family groups in Spain at between 250 and 320 (250 confirmed with indications of a further 70).

Castilla y León's conservation program, published over the Christmas period, states that regional government employees will take responsibility for controlling wolf populations in the protected area south of the Duero with a quota system established on the northern side. According to its figures, a quota of 18 percent of the existing population will be enforced. In the previous program, set up in 2008, the quota was the same but in some southern areas in Segovia and Ávila it was raised to 28 percent. This program was challenged in the courts by Ecologists in Action because it allowed for the hunting of wolves in areas protected under EU legislation. Responsibility for the matter now rests with the national government in Madrid.

Biologists and conservationists consulted warn that the number of wolves reported in each region could be wildly overstated. Carrying out a solid census would require considerable time and effort as wolves are transient animals. "Their territory can reach 100 square kilometers; in a nighttime outing they can run as much as 50km," says Eduardo Palomo, secretary of the Lobo Marley wolf conservation organization. Biologists point to the need to conduct a full national census in order to formulate policies to prevent an irreversible situation.

Regional data from 2001 recorded 149 packs; around 1,500 individuals

"Genetic studies on the population of wolves in Spain and Portugal suggest that these animals have been much closer to extinction in relatively recent times than was previously thought," says Jorge Echegaray, an environmental consultant who coordinated the first non-invasive tracking of wolf populations in Spain. Today, the wolf occupies just 25 percent of its historical range. There have been no studies on its potential future distribution but because of a wolf's requirements - extensive habitat and sufficient wild prey - it is possible Spain's population could extend its range considerably. "You only have to look at the attempts at colonization in the Basque Country and La Rioja, and the footnote of the [recent] appearance of wolves in Madrid," adds Echegaray.

"The government needs to determine the size of the population but it only speaks in terms of groups, to which an elevated number of members have been assigned," says biologist Alberto Fernández Gil, a member of the Association for the Conservation and Study of the Iberian Wolf (ASCEL). Fernández is the author of a doctoral thesis that concludes that attacks on domestic livestock actually increase when pack members are culled. His study, using data from Asturias, shows that there is a direct relation between the number of wolf deaths and damage to livestock in the year following a cull.

"In this area science is worth nothing," says Palomo of Lobo Marley. "If you kill the alpha male, the most coveted by hunters, then you take away the pack's leader and those that are left do not know, for example, how to track and kill a boar. Then they will turn to sheep."

"There is no evidence that the population control carried out as it is in Spain currently serves to reduce damage to livestock," says Fernández. "They are shooting wolves without thinking."

In Spain, the wolf occupies just 25 percent of its historical range

Echegaray, who has worked as a scientist at Spain's CSIC National Research Council, says that any population control must be backed with "sensible analyses on impact and justification."

"This is something that European legislation demands, as the wolf is listed as a species of community interest in all of the 28 member states. Spain hasn't even defined the wolf's status."

Theo Oberhuber, a coordinator at Ecologists in Action, recalls with a touch of resentment how in 2012 Environment Minister Miguel Arias Cañete attempted to convince the European Commission to list the Iberian wolf as a hunting species south of the River Duero. "We have always said that the wolf should be a protected species," he says.

One recent episode serves to highlight the passions and hatred that the wolf still generates: nine were found dead inside the Picos de Europa National Park last December. "This wasn't hunting; it was a massacre," says Guillermo Palomero, president of the Brown Bear Foundation. The wolves belonged to a pack based around San Glorio that had wandered into the confines of the park. "They were not considered conflictive," notes Palomero.

We have always said that the wolf should be a protected species"

In Cantabria there is no specific plan for the conservation of wolves, and one specimen is permitted to be shot per hunt. Conservationist groups have called on the regional government to clarify the situation because the Cantabrian group plays a "priceless" role in controlling wild ungulates, particularly deer, while helping to preserve the biodiversity of the Picos de Europa National Park.

"More objectivity needs to be applied to wolf management and less pressure exerted," says Roque Ortega of Ecologists in Action in Soria. Castilla y León, for example, is attempting to adapt its 2008 conservation plan to the swinging judicial pendulum resulting from its approval. The group Ecologists in Action has complained that it opens the way for hunting south of the Duero, while the COAG farmers' union appealed against the compensation system in place for losses of livestock.

Ecologists in Action notes that the 2008 document leans toward a tendency to increase hunting quotas. "More than a conservation plan, it is a plan to hunt wolves," says Luis Oviedo, the organization's lawyer. Despite the annual quota being increased from 100 to 138, it has never been reached. In 2012, for example, only 74 wolves were hunted. The reasons for the shortfall depend on who you ask. For conservationists, it is simple: because there are not as many wolves as thought. Hunters complain that the government has made things more difficult.

"We feel like we're out on parole," says Santiago Iturmendi, president of the Hunting Federation of Castilla y León. "Before you can go hunting you have to inform the Civil Guard and forestry agents... We don't even want to hear talk of wolves being declared a hunting species in Segovia because it will make things very complicated for us." Iturmendi believes that wolves should be hunted to prevent loss of livestock and to maintain the biodiversity of the ecosystem. He points out that wolf quotas are "very low" - up to three times less than for other large animals.

More than a conservation plan, it is a plan to hunt wolves"

Farmers in the province view changes to the management plan as recognition of the colonization of territories that have been wolf-free for a century, and are determined to fight their corner over compensation for attacks on their flocks and herds. "Not only are there losses through deaths but also injuries," says COAG spokesman Aurelio Pérez, adding that stress-related illnesses, loss of young and low milk production are also triggered by wolf attacks. "Coexistence is impossible. Areas where wolves can live and where they can't have to be clearly delineated, as does the overall control of the species."

Between 2005 and 2012 the regional government of Castilla y León paid out 1.7 million euros in compensation, but ecologists point out that attacks caused by wild dogs are often attributed to wolves instead.

Farmers' tales of a super-population of wolves prove paradoxical for those that study the species. Andrés Ordiz, who has more than 20 years' experience in the field, participated in the 2001 census in Castilla y León and points out that the large predators, by their very nature, have to be few in number because there cannot be more predators than prey. "No management plan takes into account the role wolves play within the ecosystem by controlling the number of species like deer and boar. Killing wolves also carries consequences."

Farmers are also facing doubts over the true extent of wolf attacks - in Asturias an investigation into possible fraud against the compensation system is ongoing - and scrutiny of the subsidies they receive from the EU Common Agricultural Policy, which are granted on the premise of adherence to sustainable and respectful biodiversity practices.

Quotas for hunting population controls have never been reached in Spain

In the middle of the debate is wolf tourism, which generates around half a million euros in the La Culebra mountain range in Zamora province, the epicenter of the sector in Spain. Javier Talegón, a biologist who founded the ecotourism firm Llobu (wolf in Asturian), believes that the interest in viewing live wolves proves they can be profitable, and that formulas exist for peaceful coexistence between the creatures and humans. Whether we are genuinely ready to rewrite the fairytales is something only time will tell.

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