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Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior

Wolfology Item # 119
(Dec. 1996)

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The Return of Il Lupo
Thomas McNamee
Italy's wolf population has been on the rebound since the 1970s, spreading from the shrublands of the far south to the mountains of the north. Experts believe there are two reasons for this: (1) the migration of Italy's human population from the farms and villages to the cities, and (2) what wolf biologist Luigi Boitani calls an "information lineage" -- an understanding, passed down through the generations in both humans and wolves, that permits wolves to survive in close proximity to man.
An austere white stucco house, with a roof of ocher tile, stands amid the olive groves and vineyards of Tuscany. Tight-furled cypresses file uphill along a lane to other farms, other villas. The February sun hangs low in the sky and the icy tramontana slices in from the north, but the pastures have already turned green and the trees are budding. Except for music coming from a radio in the nearby house, all is silent and still.
Next to the tile-roofed house stands a copse of trees in which a pack of wolves is sleeping. This is less than twelve miles from the city of Siena.
Lifting his radio antenna high, Edoardo Tedesco grins from beneath a rumpled haystack of graduate-student hair. Tock, goes the receiver, tock. He has found his study wolves....
"Excellent," Tedesco informs me. "The shepherds do not kill them yet."
In a green swale shorn to velvet far below our vantage ridge, a man is smoking a pipe and watching his sheep. There is a big white dog at his side. The flock is small, perhaps fifty sheep, but they are widely scattered -- making them vulnerable to wolf attack. "This is the very old guard dog of Italy, the Maremma," says Tedesco, "but these shephers come from Sardinia, where there are no wolves, and they don't know how to train the Maremma, and when the wolves come, the dogs run away."
....Tedesco smiles sardonically. A graduate student in wildlife biology at the University of Rome, he has been studying this pack for two years. Wolf range has been expanding steadily for the last twenty years from the province of Abruzzo in central Italy -- 150 miles from here. These wolves are newcomers. "In the beginning, they stayed in the gorges -- dense shrub vegetation, very good habitat for wild boars, roe deer, red deer....But there were not so many prey because of the poaching, and soon the wolves killed most of them, and then they began killing sheep....Two or three thousand last year, killed in the province of Siena only. Thirty, forty sheep this pack has killed."
The shepherds tolerate this?
"In Italy the wolf is protected absolutely. The sheep owners are compensated 90 percent of the value, but this does not satisfy them. They tell me, 'We are going to kill your wolves.'"
....Smaller than its American or Russian cousins, less dependent on cooperative hunting, and much less picky about its diet -- perhaps as a result of intense selective breeding produced by generation after generation of being trapped, poisoned, and gunned down -- the Italian wolf is on the rebound from a historic low of about a hundred in the early 1970s; the population now numbers perhaps more than five hundred.
One reason is il Boom, the prodigious flowering of education, industry, and prosperity in Italy in the half-century since World War II. Among the boom's effects has been a massive exodus of Italians from the villages and small mountain farms to the cities and, in turn, reforestation of the land left behind.
Reforestation has led to the recovery of remnant populations of the small roe deer and the larger red deer (a European counterpart of the North American elk). In some areas, the wild sheep known as mouflon serve as a chief prey item for wolves. In a few high-mountain refuges, the chamois and the ibex have also made a comeback....Wild boars, with their stupendous reproductive rate and their ability to adapt to a wide range of habitats, are flourishing. All of these -- when sickness, age, or hunger make them vulnerable -- are potential wolf prey.....
Since the beginning of official protection in 1976, the wolves of Italy have spread from a few mountain enclaves to far-flung new homes. They now roam the country from the heel of the boot to the Alps. There are wolves in the coastal shrublands of the far south, some of them scavenging from village dumps, where they have been seen raiding garbage cans, their fierce mouths trailing strands of spaghetti. There are wolves in the mountain forests all along the Apennine chain: some hunt wild animals; some raid livestock. There are wolves in national parks, wolves on farms, wolves in suburbs. A few of Italy's wolves have moved on to colonize the Provencal Alps of southeastern France.
Few of Italy's wolves live in habitat sufficiently rich -- or free enough of persecution by humans -- to support the traditional pack structure....If in a given patch of habitat there is enough prey to feed only one wolf, one lone wolf will live there. If there is only enough for two, two there will be, expelling their young to find better work elsewhere....
Not many of Italy's local wolf populations are substantial enough to be self-sustaining, but they are linked together....
One of the two largest centers of wolf population is in relatively lightly settled country -- the central Apennines east of Rome, including the Abruzzi National Park. In the park there are roughly twenty to thirty wolves; in the region as a whole, between seventy and a hundred. The other biggish population is in the mountains that divide the heavily peopled landscapes of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, where censusing has proved difficult. The wolf population in Tuscany is estimated to be from sixty to eighty; no recent counts have been made in adjacent Emilia Romagna....
Until the last twenty years, the fate of any American wolf that dared to dwell in the precincts of humans was certain death. Extermination has been the lot, as well, of wolves in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. Yet wolves have survived not only in Italy but also in Spain, Portugal, the Balkan States, and Greece. In western Europe, there is a north-south gradient of doom. Why?
The answer lies partly in the traditional sheep husbandry of these regions, which always included killing wolves but rarely extirpated whole populations. The ancient defenses against wolf attacks -- dogs, vigilance, small, tightly herded flocks -- are less lethal than modern traps and poisons. Today, only in the remotest pockets of Italy do the ancient ways survive with any real vitality. These are also often the places where wolves have persisted through the centuries, despite human persecution....
But according to biologist Luigi Boitani, the wolves owe their survival to more than traditional methods of husbandry. Boitani, of the University of Rome, is the leading wolf scientist in Europe....Boitani believes [that] cultural habits from the past often have more to do with how humans treat wolves than does present necessity....
Here people have lived for centuries on small farms or in villages adjacent to grazing land -- nearly always within an easy wolf-walk of rugged, densely forested, unpeopled mountains where predators could take shelter. Every flock grazes year after year in the same place, and the herder knows every spring, tree, and thicket. He knows where the wolves live: up there in the winter, down there come spring. He knows how they move and how to avoid them.
Generations pass, patterns hold, understandings endure, and there forms in both the wolf population and the human community what Boitani calls an information lineage, an intimate knowledge of their world and its rules, passed down within families through time....
"It is entirely a question of culture," says Boitani. "We can help with certain passive defenses -- better enclosures, for example -- but unless we have a pact of understanding, the wolves do not survive...."
Can the Italian wolf survive in perpetuity?
Boitani considers the question, then frowns. "Human-caused mortality is 15 to 20 percent annually -- they are hit by cars, shot, poisoned. But we are still seeing annual population growth of about 7 percent." He shrugs and smiles. "In perpetuity? I don't know. But with luck and if the people wish? Yes, for the foreseeable future, certainly."
Edoardo Tedesco's work on the Siena pack has had its ups and downs since February 1994, when he and I found the wolf pack sleeping near that farmhouse. Among those wolves was Fulvio, a ten-month-old male that Tedesco and his colleagues had radio-collared. They were hoping to track him when he dispersed from the pack. This would have been the first study of wolf dispersal anywhere in Italy. But eleven days after we saw him, Fulvio was run over by a car on the Via Cassia, the highway linking Siena to Rome.
Then Alvio, the alpha male, went off the air. The researchers combed the entire province of Siena, and ultimately flew over all of southern Tuscany, but Alvio was never heard from again....The most likely explanation for Alvio's disappearance is that shepherds killed him and destroyed his radio collar....
In the weeks after Alvio's disappearance, the pack began attacking sheep in broad daylight. Tedesco believed that this foolhardy risk could be attributed to the absence of Alvio and probably of his mate as well.
Finally Tedesco found the rest of the pack. The alpha female was alive. There were also two subordinates -- and six pups! Frequent observations followed. The research team saw several confrontations between the adult wolves and wild boars. The boars showed no fear of the wolves whatever, and the wolves showed no inclination to attack. Tedesco saw the adult wolves regurgitating food for the pups at a rendezvous site. Once he even saw a kill take place, of a roe deer....
Back at the university, the biologists began analyzing the wolf scat they had collected. The remains of domestic sheep continued to be the most common ingredient. A report -- almost certainly false -- came in that the pack had killed two hundred sheep in one night. In addition to the existing reimbursement policy, the Tuscan government introduced economic incentives to protect wolves -- free wolf-proof fencing, free guard dogs, human helpers at no charge. Depredation rates did decline. The researchers hoped to return, but there was no funding. By the winter of 1994-95, it seemed fairly certain that Tedesco's study pack had been wiped out, probably by shepherds.
A year later, however, in February 1996, a young wolf was run over on the very outskirts of Siena. And in the spring, a group of farm workers were approaching an abandoned stone house, to rest in the shade at the end of the day, when they saw a wolf bound out of the ruins and disappear in the wheat fields. This was less than a hundred yards from the Via Cassia. The workers called the chief game warden. When he and Boitani...went in to investigate, they found a litter of six wolf pups in the house.
Boitani advised leaving them alone, in the hope that the mother would return. She did so the very next night, Boitani reported, "taking all six away to a new den site (or a new country house?)."
"So you see," continued Boitani, "the pack is still around and, be sure, there is more than one!"