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The Wolf in the French Alps

Context, natural return of wolf and evolution of the population up to 2020

The wolf became effectively extinct in France in the 1930s following centuries of organised campaigns by the state to eliminate the species from the country. France even had a paramilitary unit, created about 1000 years ago, dedicated exclusively to the destruction of wolves during the 18th and 19th centuries. This unit is still active today but has other goals. Official recolonization of France by wolves began when two individuals were first spotted in the Mercantour National Park in 1992, in the alpine region close to the Italian border. Genetic evidence has since established that the individuals recolonising the country came from the wolf population in Italy, which recovered and expanded for about 20 years following international protection in the 1970s. From their initial entry point in the southern French Alps, wolves have expanded to recolonise most of the alpine chain to the north and to the west, as well as mountainous terrain in the centre (Central Massif), southwest (Pyrenees Mountains, at the border with Spain) and northeast (Vosges Mountains, close to Germany). The latest assessment of the status of the population, conducted during the winter of 2019-2020, indicates 81 reproducing wolf packs in the country. The number of wolves is estimated at between 530 and 630 individuals at present, with a growth rate slightly lower than the average growth rate of 13% estimated from previous years. The number and distribution of wolves in France is thus still growing.

Main issues and threats

Wolf distribution in France largely overlaps areas characterised by the presence of large flocks of livestock, mostly sheep, grazing in alpine pastures. Mountainous areas of intermediate altitude and lowland plains represent the colonisation front of the species in the country and are thus increasingly concerned by wolf presence. The main challenge for the conservation of the species in France is unquestionably the prevention of wolf attacks on sheep flocks. The country registers a relatively high number of attacks every year, mostly concentrated in the Southern Alps where flocks might be kept in alpine grazing areas throughout the year. Moreover, hunters in France are concerned about the impact of wolves on the number, distribution and behaviour of wild prey, particularly in the case of large ungulates. Both sheep breeders and hunters often feel their concerns about the wolf are not sufficiently taken into consideration by the state. Poaching does occur but is not considered a major issue at present. Finally, as in other countries, opposition to wolf recovery is fairly common among those living nearest to the animal, but rare in the general population. This contrast creates tension and disagreement over the place of wolves in the landscape and renders wolf management a particularly divisive and quarrelsome topic in the public debate. 

Species protection and management 

The wolf is a strictly protected species in France following translation into national law of the dispositions of the 1979 Bern Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats, and the 1992 EU Directive on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (known as the Habitats Directive). France has had a management plan in place for the species since 2004. Apart from monitoring the status of the population, the French state also finances measures to protect livestock and compensates breeders for losses due to wolf predation. The Habitats Directive allows for the lethal control of wolves to protect livestock if other measures have failed and if the viability of the wolf population is not threatened by the intervention. France has therefore set up a protocol based on gradual interventions, according to the seriousness and recurrence of wolf attacks on a particular flock. Interventions are strictly monitored and enforced by public agents. In worst cases, a dedicated unit of the French biodiversity agency conducts the lethal control.

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