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Is the grass always greener elsewhere? Summary of the 4th LWA EU International conference – 2022

20 December 2022

The fourth thematic conference of the LIFE WOLFALPS EU project was held in the afternoon of December 05 and in the morning of December 06 at the Séolane University Institute in the town of Barcelonnette in the southern French Alps. Organised by the French Biodiversity Agency (OFB) with support from the Mercantour National Park (PNM), the event focused on sharing management strategies for the coexistence of wolves and human activities in Europe. Wolf management in the continent is essentially implemented at the national or regional level. Its equivalent in neighbouring countries is therefore often misunderstood or poorly known, leading to claims that the management of the impact of wolves on human activities is less controversial or less challenging elsewhere than in one’s own country or region. This conference was an opportunity for a wide and diverse audience (livestock breeders, hunters, environmentalists, the general public) to critically assess this idea and to learn more from wolf managers and experts about the challenges, controversies and potential solutions in the management of the predator and its impact on human activities in France, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Germany, Spain and Slovakia.

Nine presentations were delivered in-person and on-line by 12 different experts in wolf management for a total of 8 hours of presentations and discussions (see programme). Thirty-nine people attended the conference in person on Dec 05, and 28 on Dec 06, while 474 people participated on-line over the two days (excluding conference organisers, speakers, technical staff and interpreters). A peak of 385 people participated simultaneously on-line on Dec 05 and 297 simultaneously on Dec 06. Attendees on-line came from or worked in 16 different European countries and spent an average of 270 minutes (4 and a half hours) online. About 100 questions were answered online each day.

In this article, we provide a brief summary of the conference.

Monday, December 5

The event began with welcoming and introductory remarks from Francesca Marucco, the scientific coordinator of the LWA EU project, who emphasized the international, collaborative approach at the heart of the project and the conference. The mayor of Barcelonnette, Sophie Vaginay-Ricour, and the representative of the central government in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department, Dahalani M’houmadi, took the word to warmly welcome participants and express their satisfaction in having the town and the department as a location for the event. Loïc Obled, deputy director general of police, knowledge and expertise at the OFB; and Aline Comeau, director of the Mercantour National Park, also welcomed participants and gave a brief overview of wolf management and current issues at the national and local scale. The moderators of the conference, John Thompson, president of the scientific committee of the Mercantour National Park, and Laure Fillon, a freelance journalist, then followed by explaining how the hybrid conference (on-line and in-person) worked.

The event began with a presentation of the French context by Sabrina Largo from DRAAF AURA (the regional public agency responsible for agriculture and forestry) and Juliette Bligny from DREAL AURA (the regional public agency responsible for steering wolf management in France). A detailed explanation of the current version (2018-2023) of the French National Action Plan on the wolf and stock-rearing activities was provided, as well as up-to-date information on livestock protection, the lethal control of wolves and communication and research activities funded by the Plan. Damages to livestock caused by wolves in France appear to be increasing again in 2022 after stable numbers from 2018 to 2021, and have now been reported even at the north-western edge of the country. In 2021, 106 wolves were culled according to the derogation to the strictly protected status and to protect livestock when no other protective measure appeared to work. So far 163 wolves have been killed in 2022. Studies funded by the National Action Plan included the future of pastoralism in France, the effects of the lethal control of wolves on livestock damages, the behaviour of wolves in the agro-pastoral system, several aspects on livestock guarding dogs, the costs of large predators, the attractiveness of the profession of shepherd, and the effects of wolf predation on the health and well-being of breeders and shepherds. Several new studies on a variety of issues are planned in the upcoming version of the French National Action Plan.

The conference continued with a presentation from Italy, delivered by Piero Genovesi from ISPRA, the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, in collaboration with Paola Aragno from ISPRA and Francesca Marucco from the University of Turin. Wildlife management in Italy differs from management in centralised countries such as France, since it is under the responsibility of regions and autonomous provinces. ISPRA must be consulted whatever action on wolves is envisioned (e.g., capture or killing of individuals), but its advice is not binding. A National Action Plan was adopted in 2002 and excluded the possibility of wolf removals. This plans has been revised with changes to this and other conservation and management and conservation measures. However, due to ongoing discussions an updated plan has not been approved yet. Until now the culling of wolves in Italy has never been authorized. In terms of wolf monitoring, a significant sampling and analysis effort led to an estimate of 124 wolf packs and couples in the Italian Alps in 2020-2021, and an estimated number of between 822 and 1.099 wolves in the area. A similar effort was performed for the rest of the country and led to an estimate of 3.307 (between 2.945 and 3.608) wolves across Italy. Correlated with an increase in the number of wolves is an increase in the number of reports of bold and urban wolves. The advice from ISPRA is to consider the use of hazing techniques, such as rubber bullets, and the possibility of capturing or translocating problematic individuals. Hybridization with dogs, a significant challenge in peninsular Italy, has now been documented in the Italian Alps. The current policy is to capture, sterilize and release the hybrids back into the wild, although permanent captivity is also an option. In terms of damage to livestock, an average of about 3.597 events occur per year in Italy. As in France, it is livestock from a minority of breeders (about 1.300 nationwide) that are chronically attacked by wolves and that suffer significant losses. Yet use of rubber bullets to protect livestock in Italy is rarely applicable and effective, although one experimental project in Veneto suggests that the technique succeeded in changing the behaviour of a habituated wolf.

Wolf management in Austria was then presented by Klaus Pogadl, president of the Austrian Centre for Bear, Wolf and Lynx. The country is at the crossroads of several expanding wolf populations: the Alpine to the west, the central European to the north, and the Dinaric to the south. In the early 2000s, wolves made their come back to Austria, and the first pack in the country was confirmed in 2016. In 2022, an estimated 50 to 60 wolves were at least temporarily present in Austria. Similarly to Italy, wolf management in Austria is a responsibility of federal states, and not centralised at the national level. To assist the federal states in coordinating management, the Austrian Centre for Bear, Wolf and Lynx was created in 2019 as an association of members originating from a variety of stakeholder groups. In terms of livestock protection, the Austrian Centre is a partner of the LIFEstockProtect project, which aims to increase knowledge and acceptance of livestock protective measures. Yet damages are growing in a country where many breeders are part-time and smallholding farmers, where subsidies for protection are only available in some federal states, and where adopting protective measures might pejoratively label breeders as “pro-wolves”. Nevertheless, one initiative in Austria has been to integrate livestock protection into the training curriculum of shepherds, while another has been to set up Wolf Prevention Intervention Units (WPIU), under the LWA EU project, to assist breeders and shepherds following a wolf kill on their flock. Looking into the future, it is expected that wolves will continue to recolonise Austria and increase in numbers.

The first day of the conference was concluded by a presentation from Rok Černe and Matej Bartol from the Slovenia Forest Service. Similarly to several European countries, an intensive government-sponsored campaign to eradicate wolves was pursued in Slovenia. But contrary to several other European countries, hunters in Slovenia contributed to establish the complete protection of the species in 1990. Since then, the population has expanded from the south and reached the north-western, alpine region of the country, on the border with Italy. In terms of management, a strategy was adopted in 2009 and a National Action Plan (2013-2017) produced during the LIFE SloWolf project, both documents being currently under revision. Wolf damages to livestock increased until 2010, when active collaboration with breeders began and controls of the proper use of fences and livestock guarding dogs were put in place. High electric fences (over 145 cm) were also used to protect livestock. Data from 2008 to 2022 show high variability but a general trend for a decrease in the number of damage cases and compensation funding in Slovenia, particularly as of 2019. Hunters continue to be actively involved by coordinating action against poaching. A sustained communication effort aimed at various stakeholders is also part of the country’s strategy to further coexistence with large carnivores. Wolf monitoring is similar to methods used elsewhere in the Alps and based on individual recognition of animals through genetic data, allowing for the estimation of population size, kinship links, demographic parameters and detection of wolf-dog hybrids. Lethal control can be performed in Slovenia to prevent serious damage to livestock, to remove animals that are considered dangerous to people, and to eliminate wolf-dog hybrids. Since 2019, less than 10 wolves were eliminated per year in the country for each of these 3 possible cases.

Tuesday, December 6

The conference started the following morning with a presentation by Bernarda Bele from the University of Ljubljana on the results of the human dimension study of the LWA EU project. The objective of this study was to evaluate the attitudes and perceptions of different stakeholder groups (general public, hunters, livestock breeders, tourism professionals, education professionals, media professionals and environmentalists) towards the wolf and wolf conservation in selected areas in France, Italy, Austria and Slovenia in which wolf presence has been either sporadic or permanent in the last 5 or 10 years. Due to COVID restrictions, the quantitative structured questionnaire was delivered through a variety of means to people in 16 different study areas, to a total of 7610 questionnaires. Results show that in terms of knowledge about wolves, respondents in France appear to have performed best, followed closely by respondents in Slovenia and Italy. In general, livestock breeders appeared to have the most negative perceptions about wolves, followed closely by hunters except in Slovenia (confirming information provided by the Slovenia Forest Service the previous day). In Austria, the majority of stakeholders were not supportive of the wolf and wolf conservation, but that could be due to the sampling methods used in the country. During the question and answer session in the room, Austrian colleagues expressed their surprise at the somewhat positive nature of the results in France, leading the French OFB LWA EU team to speculate that this could at least partly be explained by the methods used to survey the general public in the country.

The following three presentations were dedicated to countries that are not part of the LWA EU project. First came a presentation by Ilka Reinhardt in collaboration with Gesa Kluth, both from Lupus, the Institute for Wolf Monitoring and Research in Germany. As in Italy and Austria, the wolf management and monitoring is the responsability of the country’s federal states (Länder), although uniform data evaluation and interpretation is ensured by national standards. Most wolf packs and pairs occur in the north-east and the population has been growing steadily since the early 2000s, with 161 packs and 42 pairs estimated in the country in 2021-2022. Similarly to other European countries, the main cause of conflict is wolf depredation on livestock, followed to a lesser extent by competition for game species and fear of wolves. Data on damages to livestock caused by wolves generally show increasing trends, as well as increasing sums spent on compensation and protective measures. All federal states with wolf occurrence have damage prevention and compensation schemes in place, although details of how these are implemented vary. Lethal control is also managed at the level of the federal state and is performed under derogation on a case-by-case basis (there is no policy of population control or quota in place). Since 2008, only 10 wolves have been eliminated in Germany (6 to protect livestock, 2 to remove bold wolves, 1 that was assumed to be mating with a dog, and 1 that was handicapped). In 2016, the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation established the Federal Documentation and Advisory Centre on Wolves (DBBW) which advises public authorities, compiles information at the national level and provides technical reports and information to the public.

Juan Carlos Blanco, an independent wildlife consultant, then presented the current situation of wolf management in Spain, focusing particularly on the consequences of the recent full protection of the species in the country. Originally distributed over most of Spain, wolves persisted only in the north-west of the country by the end of the 20th century, with some relic populations scattered in southern areas. Damages to livestock are widespread with over 11.000 animals killed every year to a cost of 3.5 million euros/year. As other European countries, Spain is a decentralised country in which wolf management is under the responsibility of autonomous regions. Compensation is thus paid by regional governments (with a few exceptions). The river Duero represented until recently a key feature of wolf management in the country, as wolves were listed as a game species to the north of the river, but fully protected to the south. In 1999, a Wolf Working Group was created in Spain, and in 2005 a National Action Plan was approved, which was then adapted by different autonomous regions. In the last 20 years, however, lack of coordination has led to the breakdown of the Wolf Working Group, coinciding with the extinction of the relic populations in the south and the end of the expansion of the northern population, as well as the appearance of a wolf tourism industry in the Sierra de la Culebra and increased polarization between those supporting wolf hunting and those favouring complete protection of the species. In February 2021, a proposal to include the wolf in the Spanish list of fully protected species was put to a vote among regions. All regions where more than 95% of the wolf population occurred voted against the change, yet it was approved nationally by a single vote difference. This has resulted in enormous political conflict and has led some prominent conservationists in the country to criticize the top-down approach that led to full wolf protection. In any case, not a single wolf has been legally killed in Spain since September 2021.

A presentation on wolf management in Slovakia was delivered by Robin Rigg from the Slovak Wildlife Society and the University of Ljubljana, in collaboration with Joseph Bučko, director at the National Forest Centre from the Institute for Forest Resources and Information in Slovakia. As in other European countries, wolves were persecuted as pest and almost eradicated in the 1960s-70s. Partial legal protection ensued (the wolf was considered a game species and hunting quota were in place), and the population has been expanding ever since. The number of wolves hunted or killed in the country, however, has varied over the years as a result of different legislation being put into place. Wolf monitoring was based on simple counts made by hunters, but numbers obtained from genetic data in a pilot area revealed that these counts overestimated the wolf population in the country by a factor of about 5. Applying this correction factor to numbers obtained nationally has led to an estimate of 609 wolves in Slovakia. In terms of damage to livestock, as elsewhere in Europe, most losses (80%) are concentrated on few sheep flocks (12%), and damage levels are highly influenced by the presence or absence of protective measures. Wolves cause 31 times less economic damage than wild ungulates in Slovakia, and wolf numbers are positively correlated with red deer numbers in the country without leading to more damage to livestock. Compensation for damages are paid since 2002-2003; payments are conditional on the presence of protective measures but there are no public funds available for prevention. In Slovakia, no obvious correlation is observed between damage to livestock and the number of wolves hunted. In 2021, the species has been declared fully protected in the country, but it is still too early to evaluate the outcomes of this policy.

The last presentation was given by Nathalie Siefert and Rachel Berzins of the Mercantour National Park. The wolf started its recolonization of France from the park in 1992. A first observation of the animal was made by park staff, but the information was kept confidential for 6 months to certify the veracity of the observation, to ensure the legal protection of the species and to prepare a protocol for managing livestock depredation. However, a wildlife magazine publicly announced the return of the wolf before an official declaration by the government, leading to rumours of a secret reintroduction of wolves by the national park. A parliamentary inquest in 2003 discarded the hypothesis of an artificial reintroduction of wolves in France, but poor communication has led to doubts over the natural return of the wolf in the mind of many people to this day. Wolf monitoring in France began in the park, as well as the first procedures for livestock damage reporting and compensation, the first observations of wolf behaviour using thermal infrared cameras and the first predator-prey study. Since the return of the predator, the Mercantour has strived to reconcile the presence of wolves and pastoral activities through funding of protective measures via 2 LIFE grants (1997-1999 and 2000-2003) and now through the work of the Wolf Prevention Intervention Unit (WPIU) of the LIFE WOLFALPS EU project. In 2021, about 10% of depredation victims in France occurred in the park, yet all breeders use at least 2 if not 3 protective measures. A sustainable agriculture committee was created in 2009 to work with agriculture professionals and create room for sharing information and for discussion and debate on propositions and decisions made by the park.

Conference moderators John Thompson and Laure Fillon concluded the event by thanking all participants for the quality of their interventions, questions and the debate. They highlighted the diversity of context, governance, perceptions and attitudes, and management strategies that exist in the different countries represented at the conference, the need for a common framework, the need to involve all stakeholders in wolf management, and the crucial importance of communication and educational initiatives. Whether or not the grass is always greener elsewhere, therefore, is a highly subjective point of view.

The conference is available on the project YouTube page