Were there wolves in the Alps in the past?

Up until a hundred years ago wolves were an integrated part of the Alpine ecosystem. They were considered pests and hunted, the last wolves were killed in the Alps in the 1920s.

Are hybrids a problem for wild wolves?

The increase in cases of wolf-dog hybrids, encouraged by feral dogs and strays, is a serious threat to the wolf population, it is a source of genetic impurity and means the irretrievable loss of millions of years of adaptation brought about by natural selection. Hybridisation is a threat to wolf conservation from three points of view:

1 the formation of hybrids and their introgression into the wolf population is a threat to the survival of the wolf as a species.

2 the intensification of conflict with humans, because the hybrids cause the same damage as wolves, but the fault is attributed to wolves with repercussions for the image and social acceptance of the species.

3 the legal vacuum on this issue, because hybrids are not identified in the current national regulatory framework: they are not protected by the Framework Law on Hunting (LN 157/92), nor are they covered by the law on stray dogs (LN 281/91 ) nor the regulations for the compensation of damage. This situation raises serious legal problems for the management of both hybrid animals and the damage caused by them.

Were wolves ever entirely extinct in Italy?

No, the wolf has never disappeared completely from Italy, even though the risk of extinction of species has been strong: in the 70s only a few hundred individuals remained in the country confined to the mountainous areas of central-southern Italy. We have to thank two researchers for the first information on what remained of the wolf population in Italy, Luigi Boitani of the University La Sapienza of Rome and Erick Ziemen of the Max Planck Institut of Monaco, who in the early 70s, commissioned by WWF, studied the distribution of the species highlighting that without specific intervention, shortly wolves would have died out altogether. The time was ripe, something had finally changed and a new awareness had spread among the public: wolves were no longer seen only as a potential source of interference but also and above all as a piece of valuable Italian biodiversity, to be protected for the equilibrium of ecosystems. This new awareness is was the basis for the first measures of protection at national level: the Natali ministerial decree, ’71, who took wolves off the list of pests and prohibited the use of poisoned bait, and the Marcora decree of ’76 , which established full protection and total ban on hunting the species.

What is a hybrid?

Hybrids are a cross between wolves and dogs: wolf and dog are biologically the same species and if they mate their offspring are fertile. Over the last twenty years reports of wolves with morphological characteristics different from those of the standard Italian wolf have intensified. For example (black wolves with patches, the presence of spurs, white nails, undershot and abnormal dentition, etc..). In addition, genetic analyses carried out with increasingly refined techniques have allowed us to confirm that some specimens of wild canids (in Tuscany and elsewhere) are in reality not just first generation hybrids (resulting from the first cross between a wolf and a dog), but also hybrid subsequently introgressed into the wolf population: hybrid specimens were confirmed in Mugello, in Siena, Amiata near Grosseto and in the Maremma Nature Park.

Do wildlife enclosures breed wolves to release into the wild?

Absolutely not. Wildlife enclosures don’t breed wolves and the certainly don’t release them. These areas act as temporary recovery centres for injured animals. They are home to animals that could no longer survive in the wild.

Where can I see a wolf?

In the wild wolves are very shy and extremely difficult to see. A good way to satisfy your curiosity and to learn a lot of interesting things at the same time is to visit a wildlife enclosure like the “Uomini e lupi” centre in Entracque.

Where are injured wolves treated?

Injured wolves are treated in wildlife recovery centres or suitable, authorised enclosures for protected species.

What should I do (and what note) if I meet a wolf?

People have always persecuted wolves, so much so that this predator feels threatened by our presence and it can rarely be approached. Sometimes the young animals are less wary, but it they won’t let you get close if they are in good health. Also, consider that if you look come across a wolf at close quarters it is likely that perhaps its senses, much more developed than ours, did not allow it to intercept us, maybe because the wind was in our favour. In any case, if we encounter a wolf, it is preferable not to do anything. If you surprised it close up, you will have little time to see it run away. Once it has moved away, don’t follow it. If you really are scared, you can make a noise, shouting and waving your arms: this will also serve to relieve some of the adrenaline that this exciting meeting we will have procured. If instead you observe from afar, don’t get excited, remain silent: enjoy this moment which will most likely be one of the few memories we have of the wolf, a shy animal and difficult to spot. If we happen to see a predation on wild animals, we should not interfere in any way with the action of wolf hunting to ‘save’ the prey: the wolf is a factor in natural selection in the environment and as such should be respected. If you encounter wolves that are already eating a prey, avoid disturbing them, immediately moving away in silence. If by chance the wolves run away, frightened by our unexpected arrival, however, we avoid approaching or touching the prey. In any case, if you’re lucky enough to spot a wolf, write down the day, time and place and report your observation info to:

lifewolfalps.eu: your contribution is important for monitoring wolves!

Is it easy to see a wolf?

Definitely not. Unless you are the unlucky shepherd of a flock with a particularly high number of attacks, it is very unlikely that you will see a wolf. Just think there are researchers and volunteers monitoring wolves in Piedmont for years, collecting dozens of wolf scats and paw prints without ever meeting a wolf!

What should I do if a guard dog comes towards me?

It can happen during our trips to meet a flock guarded by guard dogs. It is important, keep in mind one thing: all dogs are potential predators and as such will react chasing prey when it runs away. So when this big white dog – usually a Maremman or Abruzzese shepherd – comes towards us with an aggressive attitude, even if we are scared, we should not run away. Even if it growls or barks, we should never (ever!) Throw stones, wave sticks or such in a threatening way it can only make things worse. It is best to stay calm and wait for the shepherd, who will surely have noticed the situation and will intervene by calling the dog. In any case, it is a good idea to stop and let the dog approach, talking quietly, firmly, to show we are not a threat. Take children by the hand to prevent them from running away if they are frightened. If the shepherd does not appear and the dog does not seem convinced of our good intentions, we should slowly retrace our steps without turning our back on the dog, and then find an alternative route to proceed at a safe distance from the herd. By adopting this behavior, in general, things will go well we can continue our hike without a hitch. In any case, it’s best to avoid trouble and not to get close to the herd, or worse still, to try to cross through it or stroke a lamb, because this behavior alarms the guard dog: there is time to take an alternative route or wait patiently for the flock to pass by. Do not forget that we are on vacation, the shepherd and the dog are not: we must respect their work!

Are there ways of preventing attacks on livestock?

There are several methods of prevention, which reduce attacks on domestic livestock if not totally eliminating them. There is no absolute best prevention system: depending on the type of farm and the characteristics of the pasture that you want to protect, a method may be more or less suitable. In any case, the two systems most commonly used are electric fences to enclose the flock especially at night, and guard dogs. It is the combination of different prevention measures that gives the best results. Whatever the prevention methods used, to make them really effective it is essential for the shepherd to be present. It is the shepherd who decides how to arrange the electrified fences, and who must manage the guard dogs trained to defend the flock … which implies a surplus of work and considerable stress! Currently we are experimenting and collecting data on the operation of acoustic and optical deterrents, including fladries, which are red flags, 8 x 50 cm arranged along a nylon rope at intervals of about 50 cm from each other. From studies carried out abroad has been shown that this system is a difficult barrier for wolves to cross. The acoustic deterrents are devices that emit beeps at fixed times. These methods are effective in the short term, because the deterrent effect may be attenuated in the long term.

Do wolves prey on livestock?

Yes, given the opportunity wolves will attack livestock. Without protection livestock is more vulnerable, that is easier to predate, than any wild animal. The domestic species most targeted are sheep and goats, animals of small size, but also calves and foals, especially in the alpine pasture in the summer months. At the Italian level, the total loss caused by wolf attacks is a negligible fraction of the overall mortality rate recorded for cattle, but in some cases, for single farmers can be quite a heavy blow. Sometimes the indirect damage is more severe than the predation itself consisting of abortions, injury, escaped livestock and loss of milk production. The conflict between farmers and wolves is greater where the predator has recently returned, or in areas where animals are out to pasture but no longer supervised and without systems of defence.

Can injured wolves be released back into the wild once they’ve been treated and cured?

The aim of treating injured wolves is to get them back into the wild as soon as possible. They are only kept in enclosures when they have suffered permanent injury or when they have had to spend too long in captivity to make it possible to go back to living in the wild.

Are the carcasses of animals that we occasionally come across walking in the mountains the remains of predation by wolves?

A good question, which often not even a specialist is able to give a definite answer, particularly if some time has passed since the predation. In some cases, clues at the scene, characteristics of the prey and its consumption pattern allow you to ascertain fairly safely that it is wolf predation rather than feral dogs. But the vast majority of bones we run into along the paths belong to animals that have died for various reasons (sickness, avalanche, old age, accident, …), whose remains were then carefully stripped by carnivores (foxes, vultures , …) and cleaned by insects.

What do wolves eat?

Wolves are generalist and opportunistic predators: the opposite of fussy eaters. In fact, their prey of choice may be wild ungulates (mainly red deer, roe deer, fallow deer, chamois, mouflon and wild boar), but they don’t mind livestock, the carcasses of dead animals, and very occasionally fruit and – perhaps more in the past – rubbish. It has been estimated that the daily intake of meat varies from 3 to 5 kg and increases during the reproductive period. Wolves can survive fasting for several days and then eat up to 10 kilograms of meat at one time: a skill that is very useful, if you take into account that only 10% of hunts is successful!

Why are people afraid of wolves?

We, like all other living beings, are the result of a long evolutionary history, which certainly involves the fear of carnivores, which were the enemies and competitors of our ancestors for millennia. We carry this ancestral fear inside, and over the centuries legends, rumours and stories that portray the wolf as a concentrate of wickedness have been grafted, in part justified by the rare but real attacks on humans documented in the past. But today, our actions and our thoughts can and must find inspiration in reason and knowledge, which suggests having an attitude of caution and respect towards large carnivores. Many cultural filters have distorted our view of wolves (and bears), sometimes making it look more like us humans (with our strengths – a few! – And flaws – many! ), more often portraying them as the embodiment of absolute evil . But what are wolves really? Just wild carnivores, of which scientific research has revealed enough to provoke respectful curiosity, admiration, but also apprehension when they approach the places of our daily lives. It is complex calculating the correct distance between us and wolves: it’s about learning to relate to wild animals, that must be respected without trying to interfere, without confidence or fear.

Are wolves dangerous?

There have been attacks documented in the past,in a rural and mountain context that was very different from today’s, in which the human presence was higher and the number of wild prey much smaller. In addition, most of the attacks on people are attributed to animals suffering from rabies, a disease not documented in Italy from 1997 to 2008 and now restricted to a limited number of animals, especially foxes, concentrated in the eastern Italian regions (Friuli Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Trentino Alto Adige): The probability of being attacked by a wolf suffering from rabies today is therefore close to zero. In addition, the victims in the past were often children left alone to supervise grazing animals, a common practice in Italy until the end of the nineteenth century. Wolves today, are as they were then opportunistic and intelligent, carnivorous predators, which do not see humans as a possible prey, but identify us as a threat to avoid as quickly as possible. In a modern setting, with abundant natural prey, and a different socio-ecological context, it does not fit the strategy of an intelligent carnivore to attack a difficult and potentially dangerous target such as humans. In fact, in Italy, at least since the Second World War, there have been no more attacks on people recorded.

What about wolf reproduction?

Wolves mate once a year between February and March. Normally only the dominant couple, the alpha female and male, mates. The pups are born between the end of April and the middle of May after a gestation of 63 days. Females usually give birth to 3-4 pups per litter, but there is a high mortality in the first year and not all of them make it to adulthood.

How do you count wolves?

The estimate of the number of wolves and the number of packs is determined by the combination of non-invasive techniques: snowtracking during the winter, the technique of wolf-howling (imitation howls stimulate a response by wolves in the area making it possible to establish their presence and numbers), certified documented sightings and genetic analyses of organic samples. In particular, the latter are based on the extraction of DNA from the wolf faeces or other biological samples, from which it is possible to determine, by analysis of microsatellite loci, the unique genotype of the individual, which is ‘an id card ‘ of that wolf. Genetic analysis of droppings therefore allow us to study the movements of individual wolves over the course of the seasons and to estimate the number of wolves present without having to physically capture the animals. But it is not only the estimate of the minimum number of wolves present that is important. The pack is the unit by which wolves are counted, because it is a more stable presence in an area and is easier to document: a pack is considered such if it consists of more than two individuals, and / or if there has been documented reproduction, and / or if two individuals of the opposite sex have maintained stable territory for at least two consecutive years. It is intuitive that a reliable monitoring of the wolf population in the Alpine requires complex and coordinated teamwork, carried out in the field in a systematic manner by well-trained staff.

How many wolves are there is the Alps?

Between 1994 and 2009 the number of French/Italian packs rose from 1 to 32 (Source: WAG 2009). Packs in Piedmont alone grew from 1 to 14 between 1999-2012. with an estimated minimum of 50 wolves in 2012 (Source: Progetto Lupo Piemonte).

Why are wolves recolonising the Alps?

Many people wonder ‘what makes them do it? what drives the wolves to continually expand their territory covering long distances? ‘. The answer to this question is found in wolf biology and revolves around two key concepts of the pack and territory. The wolves are organised in packs that are family units that occupy a well-defined territory: the presence of strange wolves is not generally tolerated within the confines of the pack’s territory. The basic unit of the pack is made up of the alpha pair, the dominant female and male – the only ones to reproduce – and of the current year’s pups and a variable number of subordinate wolves. In Italy, the average composition of a pack is 4-6 individuals, but in some cases it can range between 2 and 7 animals. With each generation, when the puppies reach sexual maturity they face two options: either to remain in the pack as subordinate animals, with the prospect, perhaps, of one day climbing the rigid social hierarchy and becoming the alpha wolves, or abandon their pack of origin to set off in search of new territories to form another pack with an animal of the opposite sex. Often this second option is the only choice, because the territory of the pack of origin would not be rich enough in prey to feed a larger number of wolves. When the young wolves leave the pack in search of new territories they are said to be ‘dispersing’. If we consider that the minimum area of ​​each pack in the Alps has a size between 150 and 400 sq km, it is easy to understand that wolves in dispersion have to walk quite a way before they can settle in a new area! Considering that in twenty-four hours, but mostly at night, wolves can cover up to 35-40 km, we begin to understand that not only is it possible for them to have moved from the Apennines, generation after generation, until they reached the Alps, but also that it was a natural process dictated by the needs of the species. Of course, the return of the wolf has been facilitated by a number of favourable factors: the depopulation of the countryside and mountains with the consequent increase in wooded areas, the increase in prey available to wolves (wild ungulates), legal protection of the species and awareness campaigns for public opinion.

How did the wolves get back to the Alps?

On their own four paws. Unlike other species that had completely or partially disappeared from these mountains and were later reintroduced, like bearded vultures, bears and ibex, this return was a natural process, made easier by several factors. The depopulation of rural and mountain areas and the abandonment of farming led to a progressive increase in wooded areas, an ideal habitat for wolves and the wild ungulates on which it feeds. The increase in available prey species and the protection given at national and European levels have also helped to create good conditions for the wolves return.

Where do the wolves in the Alps come from?

The wolves found in the Western Alps today are part of the Italian population. They are direct descendents of wolves that survived extinction in the central and southern Appenines in the early 1970’s, since then they have recolonised the northern Appenines first then they expanded naturally into the Western Alps early in the 1990’s. Now we are starting to see the first wolves from the Dinaric Alps in Slovenia dispersing into the Central and Eastern Alps.