Can We Figure Out Where Human-Wolf Conflicts Are The Most Likely?
Men and wolves: Anthropogenic causes are an important driver of wolf mortality in human-dominated landscapes in Italy (2021) Musto et al., Global Ecology and Conservation, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2021.e01892
The reintroduction of wolves into many regions in the Northern Hemisphere is massively controversial, and even a constant parliamentary debate in some countries. There are no doubts that wolves bring considerable benefits to local biodiversity wherever they are reintroduced, but there are also no doubts that their reintroduction is met with trepidation by the local human populace.
That makes figuring out where conflicts are likely to arise and wolves and likely to be shot, poisoned, or hit by a car really important. If we can figure out where wolves are most likely to be killed, it can help conservationists figure out where their populations need the most attention, and where outreach to local farmers could prevent further conflicts. That’s what today’s authors wanted to figure out.
What They Did
This study took place in Tuscany, Northern Italy, where wolves have slowly increased in number over the past 30 years. The region is density populated by people, and there are a large number of farmers and hunters therein.
212 dead wolves were collected from around the region, however 12 of the corpses were too composed to help. For the remaining 200, the location was noted and the cause of death identified. These deaths were modelled against many variables, including the proximity to livestock, the density of wolves in the area, and how easy it is to actually detect a carcass in the location they were found. They also tested the sites against whether wolves had a permanent population in the surrounding, and how high human density was.
Did You Know: Livestock Guarding Dogs And Wolves
Coming up with ways around the wolf problem is obviously a big challenge around the world, but one potential response is Livestock Guarding Dogs (pictured below). These are large breeds of dog that are raised around their charges (usually sheep), and will defend them from wolves, and sometimes even bears, hopefully allowing coexistence. The dogs present problems in themselves though – being attacked by a wolf in the forest is almost impossible, but getting between a large dog and its flock can be frightening. Teaching hikers to avoid free-grazing cattle therefore needs to be a priority in areas where LGDs are used.
What They Found
Of the 200 wolf carcasses, 21 were determined to have died from natural causes (starvation or fights). 104 were hit by vehicles, and the remainder were either illegally shot or poisoned. The killings increased over the years, and most were found dead between October and March, with a noticeable drop in the warmer months.
Oddly, none of the variables had any relation to the location of the carcasses, meaning that using the most likely (theoretical) predictors did not help the authors predict where wolf carcasses were most likely to turn up.
Normally I would be surprised that when the thing we are trying to predict (illegally killed wolves) are divided into two sections so starkly (poisoned and shot), that the researchers would test each of these categories separately. However when your data is so small (only about 100 wolf carcasses to work with), that makes things really difficult.
It’s always a little disappointing when a really neat study like this one turns up no results, but there may be some explanations for it. Under-reporting of carcasses could occur as a consequence of people covering up illegal wolf kills, which would hurt the chances of drawing solid conclusions. It could also be that wolf hunting is not just restricted to areas where farming is common, but more widespread around the area.
Although this study didn’t yield the results it could have, it’s still a great approach to take, and the data collected is really important. Educating people about the true nature of wolves will be a big step forward for biodiversity.
Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who realises he just spent hours writing a piece that undermines his research and honestly isn’t sure how he feels about it. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.