The wolf (Canis lupus) is a very adaptable species. Its original area in the Olocene era (about 11,000 years ago) covered the whole of Europe and North America: wherever there were wild ungulates to hunt, wolves were present. Later, competition with humans led to a significant decrease in the extent of wolf distribution, up to the current distribution, which ranges over a variety of ecosystems, from arctic tundra to the desert of Arabia , both in the Americas and in Eurasia.
Considered a pest and exterminated in Central Europe until its total disappearance in the early decades of the twentieth century, between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the wolf has undergone a gradual eradication also from Eastern Europe and the Alps, reaching its minimum population between the 1930s and 1960s. However, some isolated populations, survived in parts of Europe including Italy.
In Italy, the wolves were exterminated in the Alps in the first two decades of the twentieth century and for decades remained confined to the south of the Po River, with a population in decline until the 1970s, in those days there was an estimated presence of a hundred wolves in a limited area in the central and southern Apennines.
From the 1970s onwards, there has been a slow recovery, due to several ecological and social factors. The wolf’s high ecological plasticity has played an important role in the recovery of the species, as have its ability to survive by adapting to feed on any food source available, its high dispersal and the ability to move even in unfavourable habitats.
The gradual depopulation of rural areas and the large majority of Alpine valleys during the Second World War also led to the abandonment of acres of hills and mountains, at the base of the re-naturalisation of many areas that have been reoccupied by wild ungulates. These same areas have formed a favourable habitat for wolves.
Of fundamental importance, finally, have been some protection laws, both national and international From the 1970s these made it illegal to hunt wolves and recognised their high conservation interest. In 1971 a Ministerial Decree, made final in 1976 removed the wolf from the list of harmful species, prohibiting hunting and prohibiting the use of poisoned bait. This decree was followed by the law 157/92, and at European level the Berne Convention of 1979, where the wolf has been included in Annex II ‘ strictly protected species ‘ and the Habitats Directive 92/43 which, in Appendix D considers the wolf as a ‘species of Community interest in need of strict protection.’ Finally, the wolf is shown in ‘Appendix II species potentially threatened’ by the Washington Convention (CITES) of 1973 on international trade in animal and plant species in danger of extinction.
The wolf population in Italy thus increased from the 100 individuals surviving in the 1970s to about 220 specimens estimated in 1983, reaching estimated 600 wolves in Italy in 2003. The distribution range of the species has now expanded to the north, covering the entire area of the Apennines and creating new packs in the early 1990s, in the Westerner Alps.
In fact, as early as the 1980s some predation on livestock verified the presence of the wolf Ligurian Apennines, but it’s in the early 1990s that the predator started the colonization of the Western Alps, through the narrow connection of the Ligurian Alps with the Northern Apennines. The first confirmed sightings of the Alps date back to 1987 in the area around the Colle di Tenda, on the French side, in the Pesio and Stura valleys in the early 1990s and in the province of Turin in 1994. We have confirmed data regarding the presence of the species in France since 1992, with the settling of the first pack in 1994 and their subsequent increase from that point forward. In Italy, the first reproductions, were documented in the winter of 1996-97 in Pesio Valley and in the Gran Bosco di Salbertrand Park. In 2009, including France and Piedmont 32 packs of wolves were counted, which indicate the presence of a long-established and stable species in the Western Alps
In Switzerland, by the mid-1990s the presence of individuals from the Italian population was recorded, but never packs; the first proof dates back to 1994, with the permanent presence of a male, who was killed two years later. The first pack reproduction appeared in Switzerland in 2012. There are still a large number of areas to be colonized over the rest of the Alps. The news of the return of the species in Lessinia (eastern prealps), dates to the spring of 2012,. Despite the positive trend of the species as a whole, unlawful killings and accidents (impact with trains and motor vehicles) still constitute a serious threat to the species. It should also taken into account that a small population with low genetic variability such as the Alpine one still needs connectivity with the neighbouring populations.
The spontaneous movement of re-colonization from west to east of the wolf has made it necessary to transfer the knowledge and best practices gained in the Piedmont in twenty years of coexistence with the predator.
To the west
The story of the wolf in the Dinaric Alps does not differ from that of the species in the rest of the Alpine region. Hunted for centuries with the specific desire to completely eliminate the presence of the Slovenian wolf population, it saw a short period of recovery during the first World War. But already in 1923, with the birth of the ‘Council for the extermination of the wolf’, formed by professional hunters, the respite ends and the number of wolves is reduced drastically: the species becomes rare everywhere. You have to wait until 1973 for a turnaround: in that year recompense for killing wolves was stopped and the first protection initiatives begin. The first law limiting the period for wolf hunting was dated 1976. Fourteen years later, the protection was extended to the whole year by the hunters organisation, while the first law of protection at national level was published in 1993, with the Decree on the Protection of wolves in Slovenia. Today, the wolf is a protected species: year-on-year, the Ministry responsible for the management of the predator may exceptionally decide and define the culling of a certain number of individuals, based on careful monitoring.
In 2013 the mating of the first pair in the mountains of Lessinia was documented. This first couple formed by a wolf coming from the Dinaric Alps, ‘Slavc’, and a female coming from the Western Alps, ‘Juliet.’ The exceptional event leads to what zoologists and researchers had expected and awaited for some time: the reuniting of two different populations for centuries no longer in contact with the formation of a pack, the only known (to 2014) for the eastern Alps, an event of high biological and conservation value.