It is commonly believed that Poland contains Europe's largest wolf population. But, as this essay shows, Poland's wolf numbers may be exaggerated -- padded by game managers who want to see continued wolf hunting. Polish wolves have other problems, too -- a reduction in prey numbers and increasing human visitation in the wolves' forest habitat. Much-needed research led by Dr. Wojciech Smietana lacks official support. All of this makes the situation of Poland's wolves one that we must keep an eye on -- JM
At one time, the grey wolf had the largest natural distribution of any land mammal other than humans. Centuries of persecution have cost it that record, and while the wolf is returning to some areas, many small populations are still vulnerable. Paul Evans joined a team of volunteers helping monitor wolves in Poland in an effort to stop them being hunted into local extinction.
It's a sound to chill the blood. In the preternatural stillness that descends with the falling snow, a wolf howls. A reply comes almost instantly. For millenia, this call and response -- both territorial display and an aid to pack cohesion -- has rung out across the densely wooded slopes of Poland's Bieszczady Mountains, home to the highest density of wolves in Europe. But even here in this wild, remote region, it's a sound that is becoming increasingly rare.
One of these wolves recently walked along the ridge upon which we're standing, through beech and fir encrusted with a delicate tracery of frost. The smudgy prints that we've been following have now been resolved. There, stamped in the frozen mud, is one of the most enigmatic signatures of the wild....
The forests...form part of Poland's 270-square-kilometre Bieszczady (pronounced Bish-cardy) National Park. Located 300 kilometres southeast of Krakow, and bordering Ukraine and Slovakia, the park has its own administration and conservation regime, a reflection of the immense importance of the wildlife it protects, which includes roe deer, wild boar, elk, European bison, beaver, brown bear and lynx.
The national park initially covered an area of 56 square kilometres when it was established in 1973 in the face of strong opposition from the hunting lobby. It was enlarged following the fall of Communism and then, in 1993, as part of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere initiative, it was included in the 2,000 square-kilometre East Carpathian Biosphere Initiative, which also takes in areas of Slovakia and the Ukraine. Bieszczady is the reserve's central protected zone, with a largely hands-off style of management. At present the Slovak and Ukrainian sections have only partial protection.
Of all the wildlife safeguarded by the reserve, it is the wolf whose status is the most contentious. Local anxieties and resentment, pressure from farmers and a powerful hunting lobby, inaccurate scientific data, social and economic development imperatives and an age-old fear combine to make conservation a political minefield.
Dr. Wojciech Smietana of the Institute of Nature Conservation at the Polish Academy of Sciences has been studying wolves in Bieszczady National Park since 1988....One of his main concerns is that the official figures given for Poland's wolf population are double what they are in reality. These official figures were influenced by data obtained by game managers who want to see a resumption of wolf hunting. Protected in Bieszczady since 1973, wolves were still hunted in its environs until 1998. However, illegal hunting, poaching and calls for culling for 'scientific purposes' are ever-present threats.
"For years," says Smietana, "I applied for permission to use radio-telemetry to gain accurate information on the wolf population, but the hunting lobby blocked my permits. Yet permits were granted to hunt 150 wolves." From 1991 to 1995, Smietana used snow tracking to count wolves in Bieszczady. In an area of 100 square kilometres he identified the presence of five wolf packs, each of which comprised between two and ten individuals. His total estimate for the park's population came to just 60-80 wolves, but the official figure was 100-200. A cull of 100 was proposed, but only 35 were actually killed; however, this still meant the loss of as much as half the population.
It wasn't until 2000 that Smietana received permission to begin radio-tracking. With the assistance of volunteers from Biosphere Expeditions, a non-profit organisation that engages in wildlife conservation projects, and Land Rover, which provided him with a vehicle, he has trapped a number of wolves and fitted them with radio-collars. The first was killed after 17 days, the second after only eight. The third, a large male between five and seven years old, was trapped and collared in March last year....These three wolves came from a pack of seven that has now been reduced to just a single pair....
Hunting, whether illegal or state sanctioned, isn't the only threat the wolf faces. It has also seen a huge decline in the abundance of its main prey species, the red deer....Overgrazing of the forests precipitated a large deer cull in the 1990s and the average population is now down to just 1.5-2 per square kilometre.
Hunters had long complained that wolves take large male red deer in prime condition and, when a large trophy stag can fetch the equivalent of [pounds sterling] 1,600-3,200, it would seem that they have a strong financial incentive to cull wolves. However, Smietana's examination of 600 wolf kills has revealed that the deer most vulnerable to predation are calves, followed by the youngest males and the oldest females. Although some prime-aged males are occasionally taken, they are usually those with small fat reserves, which are less able to endure a long wolf chase. And while individuals may fall prey to the wolves, the process actually helps maintain the health of the deer population by restricting its growth, preventing the overgrazing and disease that traditionally accompany overpopulation.
Smietana's research has shown that red deer make up three quarters of the wolf's diet, the remainder consisting mostly of roe deer and wild boar. Although only about two per cent of the diet comes from livestock (usually sheep), it's here that some of the greatest conflict between people and wolves occur. The wolf's protected status means that farmers are compensated for any lost livestock, but it's a complicated and contentious business. Affected farmers lobby for the removal of local wolf packs or for returning wolves to the game list.
....[M]any of the region's pastoral-husbandry traditions...have been lost.
Smietana is working to revive one of these traditions -- the use of Tatra sheepdogs to guard flocks. This large, tough hound is raised with sheep in order to form a powerful social bond with the flock. Wolves are very reluctant to risk injury by tackling Tatra dogs and two per flock provide a sufficient deterrent. Smietana uses the dogs to corral flocks at night into enclosures surrounded by three strands of electrified wire. The top strand is a 'fladry' -- a line of coloured flags that wolves dislike and are reluctant to cross.
"We used this method on a farm that lost 15-30 sheep to wolves in one year," he says, "and over the past few years only 2-3 have been lost. It isn't perfect but it shows that farmers and wolves can live together peacefully."
Whether this coexistence is ever given a chance will depend on many factors....Even within the national park there are still hunting towers where deer carcasses are used as bait for wolves, which are shot for the black-market hunting trade. Smietana hopes to trap and collar a wolf from the pack operating in this area so that those involved in this trade will know it is being tracked.
....Smietana is also worried that the subdivision of bankrupt farms for holiday-home development and increased penetration of the forest by visitors, their traffic and the roads upon which they depend, will greatly affect the free movement of the wolves that live in the area.
The wolf print that we found on the wooded ridge is logged for Smietana's burgeoning database. To those of us on the expedition who found it...it represents something much more....These tracks belong to an inspiring language, and it is one we should learn. The living creature at the end of its trail may never care, but if we're going to save it from persecution -- and possible extinction -- we must.
Return of the Wolf
At one time, the grey wolf was found throughout Europe. Today, there are numerous fragmented populations, with Poland's being the largest. Could such natural wealth be more evenly distributed when Poland joins the EU?....
Under the 1992 European Habitats Directive, governments are requested to reintroduce species that have become extinct in their countries. This could lead to the translocation of wolves that might otherwise be killed to places where they were once abundant.
Most of Britain lost its wolves in the Middle Ages, but in Scotland they persisted until the 18th century. While British authorities feel that they are fulfilling their obligations by reintroducing beaver to Scotland, Europe's expansion into wolf country could galvanize the wolf-reintroduction debate.
Advocates argue that conditions already exist in Scotland to support a wolf population. But their opposition claims that the entire forest ecosystem must be restored before reintroductions can be contemplated, and the objections from land owners and hunters are so strong that the idea is a complete non-starter.
Although there appears to be widespread support for a reintroduction, at present there are no plans to undertake studies into the idea's feasibility....
Map 1: East carpathian Biosphere Reserve.
Map 2: The wolf in Europe.