Unprotecting the wolf benefits no one

Coexistence between humans and large predators has never been a simple thing and, in general, difficulties tend to be resolved at the expense of the populations of the latter.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
23 April 2024 Tuesday 18:09
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Unprotecting the wolf benefits no one

Coexistence between humans and large predators has never been a simple thing and, in general, difficulties tend to be resolved at the expense of the populations of the latter. As a result, large predators are one of the animal groups that have seen their ranges most diminished, often approaching extinction.

The wolf (Canis lupus) is a clear example of what happens to species that we perceive as negative. Its current distribution throughout the world covers only 50% of what it had a few centuries ago. The species has disappeared from most of Europe, North America and the most populated areas of Asia.

In Spain, the wolf is included in the List of Wild Species under Special Protection Regime (LESPRE), but this April 23, a bill is being debated in parliament, presented by the Popular Parliamentary Group, which aims to lower the protection regime. protection of the populations north of the Duero, including their management through hunting.

In Spain there were wolves everywhere. However, centuries ago human pressure banished the species from the most productive lands, relegating it to rugged terrain. In the 19th century the wolf had become rare on the Mediterranean coast and was missing in the most populated areas.

The decline of the species was accentuated in the 20th century, with the spread of strychnine and other poisons. Even so, an article published in Montes magazine in 1947 considered that 18 Spanish provinces were “heavily infected” by wolves, and encouraged the annihilation of the species, repeating the (supposed) successes of the United Kingdom or the United States.

In that same magazine, and just a quarter of a century later, another article showed the collapse of the wolf in Spain, pointing out that "we are capable of exterminating the wolf in a few years." The species' distribution reached its minimum throughout the 1970s.

The decline of the wolf in the Iberian Peninsula was not further aggravated due to changes in the perception of the species – in particular, thanks to Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente – and in the uses of the territory (depopulation), but probably not due to the protection of legal protection.

Since its historic lows, the wolf has regained territory, although it has remained largely confined to the northwest of the peninsula, occupying less than 30% of the area it had in the 19th century.

In recent decades, both the estimated number of individuals or groups and the geographical distribution of the species have remained practically stable, in both cases with a growth slightly greater than zero. Furthermore, in this period the extinction of the last southern population of the species took place, in the eastern Sierra Morena.

Protection came through the 1992 European Union Habitats Directive, transposed into Spanish legislation in 1995, which differentiated the management of the species north and south of the Duero River, with a stricter protection regime in the latter. case. This geographical differentiation is only useful in the northwest of Iberia, and is a burden that dragged the management of the species until 2021.

In that year, the wolf was included in the List of Wild Species under Special Protection Regime, which equalized the protection of the wolf throughout the state, its hunting was prohibited and the control measures were given an exceptional nature. the species.

In recent years there have been important political movements to promote relaxation in wolf protection measures. The European Commission (EC) spurred this debate by proclaiming that the (alleged) concentration of wolf groups poses a danger to livestock and people. Curiously, the Commission copied the words used by its president, Ursula von der Lyen, after wolves killed one of her ponies.

Contrary to widespread opinion in the scientific community, in December 2023, the EC officially proposed changing the international status of wolves from “strictly protected” to “protected.”

In Spain the discussion has been particularly bitter and has pivoted on the inclusion of the wolf in the LESPRE, which is related to the expansion of the wolf, increase in its population and increases in attacks on livestock. It seems unlikely that this has happened since 2021. The relaxation of the protection provided for in the new bill is promoted in the interest of “the (defense of) extensive livestock farming and the fight against the demographic challenge.” But the wolf has little to do with all this.

What is discussed on April 23 will not be about the wolf, nor its conservation nor extensive livestock farming. Nor about depopulation. Feelings will be appealed and symbols will be displayed. And the wolf is the most powerful symbol.

Extensive livestock farming has very important problems that hinder its viability in many territories, both in those that have wolves and in those in which the species has not existed for decades.

The most important of all is the unequal competition with industrial livestock farming, which lowers prices, promotes changes in consumer habits and makes it impossible for people to make an extensive living from their activity. The regulatory structure is tremendously favorable to industrial production, not differentiating it from extensive production, preventing favorable commercialization of the latter.

Industrial livestock farming obtains this insurmountable advantage at the cost of harming the common good in many aspects (energy use, pollution) and at an enormous cost in terms of animal welfare. We all pay for the very low prices with which it places its products on the market in the form of unsustainability, loss of environmental services and health. And at the expense of extensive livestock farming.

In this context, the media insistence on attacks on livestock, its supposed increase and its incompatibility with livestock farming points to the wolf, as if it were an old story, as the evil ideal.

However, the damage caused by the wolf is largely avoidable with preventive measures and, in general, compensable. And I say in general because it is very difficult to have access to real data on damages reported, evaluated and paid. In reality, all extensive livestock farms, whether or not they coexist with wolves, lose individuals due to predation, often by dogs that roam uncontrolled.

The bill aims to allow the slaughter of wolves as a management measure north of the Duero. But this supposed control of the populations is not clear that it means less damage to livestock and mitigates the associated conflict. In fact, the effect could be the opposite, due to the destabilization of wolf groups.

Our natural systems are lacking a key element if they do not have wolves. The wolf is essential in the functioning of ecosystems, controlling herbivore populations and their activity, giving rise to what is known as landscapes of fear. These effects generate other effects in a chain, which affect the vegetation, the incidence of diseases and the provision of food for other species.

Our goal should be for the wolf to recover as much of its historical range as possible and to have healthy and viable populations in the territories already occupied. To achieve this, it is essential that the wolf is not the symbol of a cultural war that appeals mainly to feelings and puts aside facts, problems and solutions.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Miguel Clavero Pineda is a Senior Scientist at the CSIC at the Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC)