The return of wolves

From big, bad wolf to tourist attraction

The big, bad wolf is in fact shy, but its reputation for ferocity persists and its presence divides public opinion. For every lupine lover there’s someone who loathes wolves, and today these animals enjoy mixed status around the world. Wolves are protected in some areas, hunted for sport in others, or culled because they’re perceived as threats to people, livestock and pets. Yet wolves are currently present in every country in mainland Europe and their numbers are growing, so what’s behind their slow, steady comeback and what does the future hold for canis lupus?

The way we think about wolves

cultural stereotypes & common misconceptions

Wolves, more than any other predator, occupy a potent place in our collective imaginations. They lope into our language, when we speak of throwing someone to the wolves, keeping the wolf from the door and a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They are Mendacious Menace Number One in fairy tales, too: clever, devious and deadly. Remember Little Red Riding Hood? In an attempt to eat the little girl, a wolf eats and then dresses up as her granny – not the action of a mindless killer, but of a sinister, calculating predator.

So how has this animal, from which all our beloved dogs have descended, become known as the big, bad wolf? And is that name deserved or defamatory? In reality, wolves are highly adaptable generalists that live in a huge range of habitats and present a very low risk to people. Where they do come into conflict with humans is over livestock, which wolves sometimes prey on. Throughout history, dogs and shepherds would guard flocks at night, and it was a bored lad tasked with protecting sheep who gave us the term ‘crying wolf’, after he alerted villagers falsely.

Yet livestock loss doesn’t fully explain the loathing and demonisation the wolf has suffered. Even Theodore Roosevelt, known as the first environmentalist president of the USA, damned the wolf as “the beast of waste and destruction”. Attacks on humans have certainly happened, but tigers and leopards have attacked people, too, and they enjoy a much better reputation. Admittedly, the wolves’ tried and trusted hunting strategy of targeting the small and vulnerable has damaged its PR, as it means, unfortunately, they have sometimes taken children . But thanks to centuries of human retaliation and hunting, wolves generally go out of their way to avoid people. In Europe, the control of rabies has drastically reduced attacks, too, as many incidents were in the past linked to the disease.
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As a result, wolf attacks today are rare. In the 21st century, there have been six attacks on humans in Western Europe (in Greece, Croatia and Finland ) and the only fatal attack was on a young woman in Sweden, working at Kolmården Wildlife Park, by a pack of ‘habituated’ grey wolves.

Those attacks that still occur around the world are rarely fatal and often classed as predatory, which means they’re provoked by hunger and not aggression. Sometimes, human behavior is to blame, with poor fencing and food disposal enticing wolves into areas where people live and work.
So, wolf and human interaction is complex, yet public thinking around wolves can still tend towards the un-nuanced. Put the word ‘wolf’ into Google and the question ‘do wolves attack people’ will pop up instantly. Wolves polarise opinion and that’s reflected in diverse governmental policies on wolves, too. Some countries afford wolves protected status; Italy, Portugal, France, Sweden and Germany, for instance. Others don’t. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lithuania and Latvia have unprotected populations of wolves.
In many countries, the state and insurance companies compensate farmers for livestock taken by wolves, while others still allow some hunting. In Finland, wolves can be hunted in areas with high reindeer densities and in Belarus, wolves are designated a game species, with bounties of around €70 paid to hunters for each wolf killed.
In 2016, Norway hit the headlines when it planned to shoot two thirds of its wolves to protect sheep flocks. A last minute reprieve for 32 of the 47 wolves earmarked for culling was issued, when the cull was deemed to contravene domestic biodiversity legislation and the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats.

The proposed cull was not only controversial, it was ironic, too. Norway is a country famed for its investment in conservation projects around the world, from the Amazon jungle to the rainforests of Central Africa, yet its policy on wolves in its own back yard put farmers’ rights above lupine, until the very last moment.

A stealthy spread

how wolves are moving through Europe & the USA

Despite persistent stereotypes and bad PR, wolves are actually doing well. In Europe, populations are stable or growing, and wolves have now been spotted in every mainland European country. In January 2018, a wolf was found in Flanders, northern Belgium. Data from its tracking collar showed it had come from Germany through the Netherlands, covering 500km in just 10 days.
In the USA there are some 18,000 wolves and numbers are increasing. About two thirds of these live in Alaska, but rewilding projects have introduced wolves to regions where they had previously been wiped out. Yellowstone National Park is the most prominent example. After being killed off in the 1930s, 41 wolves were reintroduced here between 1995 and 1997. There are now at least 108 wolves living in 11 packs and their presence has provoked a cascade of positive environmental and geographical effects. And, despite one Congressman predicting that there would be a dead child within a year of the rewilding, not a single human has been attacked.
The success of the rewilding project in Yellowstone is helping to rehabilitate the wolf in the eyes of the general public and spread the message that humans and wolves can live together, but there is still a long way to go before wolves get the national thumbs up. Licensed culling of wolves takes place in some states, often with dubious results. Research in Wisconsin and Michigan over the last 18 years suggests culling actually provokes an increase in illegal poaching. Targeted killing of wolves to answer safety concerns and placate a public still leery of lupines only perpetuates the idea that wolves are dangerous and should, in fact, be wiped out. So, wolf supporters still have a battle on their hands, over hearts and minds as much as practicalities. It’s a battle Native Americans would have been baffled by; they lived in harmony with the half a million wolves which once roamed across America.

The future for wolves

land sharing & wildlife tourism

Given how drastically wolves divide opinion, the fact that their numbers are growing is both positive and impressive. When you consider how even creatures we adore and admire, such as elephants and tigers, are being pushed towards extinction, you could even call it miraculous.

The spread of wolves in Europe can be linked, in a small way, to the migration of people from rural to urban areas, providing more wolf habitat and less chance of conflict. A dramatic example of this is in Ukraine, where many of its 2,000 wolves live in the Zone of Alienation, north of Chernobyl, where they face few natural threats.
What’s more interesting, though, is that wolves are now living near humans. A study published in the magazine Science in 2014 found that some wolves in Europe are living in suburban areas alongside up to 3,050 people per square kilometre – higher than the population density of Cambridge or Newcastle. A land sharing model of conservation, rather than one that relies on fences and segregation can work, it seems. Introducing wolves to our landscapes does not have to mean removing humans.
In Great Britain, wolves have not been seen for hundreds of years, and only rewilding will bring them back. They were wiped out in England and Wales in the late 15th century and in Scotland in the 18th century. A few private conservation centres and sanctuaries exist, but so far all proposed rewilding schemes have been shelved, despite arguments that wolves would keep deer numbers down and boost tourism.

Tourism already plays its part in rehabilitating wolves in countries such as Sweden, Poland and France, where wolf tracking holidays create local revenue and build the message that wolves have a high value, both financially and ecologically. The fact that tourists will pay to track wolves, with no guarantee of even seeing them, demonstrates their worth and dispels myths of their danger. It’s good PR for the wolf and, largely, that’s what wolves need. Unlike with most animal conservation, the ongoing recovery of wolves depends as much on their image as their numbers.
Written by Joanna Simmons
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Photo credits: [Page banner: Yellowstone National Park] [Top box: Arne Von Brill] [Livestock loss: Jay Erickson] [Wolf human interaction: Serge Melki] [farmer: Sterling college] [Wolves increasing: Torsten Behrens] [wolves near humans: Antoine Bertier]