HOW CAN WE KNOW HOW MANY WOLVES THERE ARE IF WE CAN’T SEE THEM?
Wolves generally avoid humans. When monitoring wolf abundance in a chosen area, it is important to bear in mind that most wolves are unlikely to be encountered anywhere, so we need to use a number of different scientific methods for this purpose. These allow us to estimate with reasonable accuracy the proportion of individuals that have not been detected by observation.
In monitoring abundance, we use the “howling” method (eliciting the vocal territorial response of wolves), tracking wolves in the snow, collecting and genetically analysing samples of cells left in the environment (faeces, urine, saliva, hair) and monitoring captured individuals via telemetry collars. The method of genetic analysis of samples gives us the most information on the abundance of wolves. However, it is only the combination of different methods that allows us to integrate the results and thus to interpret and understand them more reliably.
Wolf monitoring shows that wolf numbers have increased between 2010 and 2021**, with new packs forming in areas where wolves were previously absent for a long time. The structure of packs varies from year to year, and whether a pack will remain in an area depends on the success of the lead pair in rearing pups, as well as the acceptance of wolves by local people, nutritional conditions and other factors.
Several aspects can make the detection of wolf numbers in the wild through sightings quite uncertain. The first is precisely the fluctuation of wolf numbers over the season. The second factor is young individuals in search of territory. As Europe is a densely populated area, the likelihood of encountering humans on their way through it is considerable. In addition, these individuals travel long distances (e.g. Slavc from Slavnik via Austria to Verona, M15 from the Apennines to the Western Alps, CN-M100 from the Western Alps to Germany) and can therefore be seen in several places. Although wolves live in packs, members can move within 10 km of each other. This does not mean that they are dispersing or that they are a single pack. These factors make it essential to combine different methods for the purpose of monitoring wolf abundance.
What if we meet a wolf?
In general, wolves fear and avoid humans. However, it is not unusual for wolves to approach humans and settlements. This is most often the case with younger, naïve wolves with no experience. The spatial spread of wolves into areas where people are not used to them has also increased the number of media reports about such events. Wolves are also a very adaptable species and have become somewhat used to the proximity of humans in a densely populated landscape. For this reason, the footage of the trampling machine in Kranjska Gora may come as a surprise, as they have adapted over time to the presence of (forestry) machines, which they do not perceive as a threat because they have never had any negative experiences around them. However, since humans are not prey for the wolf, the wolf is not a threat to the human. If you only encounter a wolf at a short distance, try to remain calm and observe it until it retreats.