The wolf (Canis lupus) has just entered the List of Special Protection Species in Spain, it ceases to be a hunting species and therefore its hunting is prohibited throughout the country, by virtue of an order from the Ministry for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge.
“It is a fundamental step in the protection of the wolf that Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente already started in the 1970s when the species was on the verge of extinction in Spain”, comments Ángel M. Sánchez, director of the project ‘National Volunteering for the Iberian Wolf Census’ resided at the University of Alcalá.
However, the researcher points out, the new regulation falls short. “It was not what we wanted, neither the conservationists nor the scientists who investigated the wolf because our objective is to eliminate the assumption of the controls of the species.” And it is that, abounds, “although the requirements will be tougher, the ‘sword of Damocles’ is still there. A species like the wolf, an apical predator, does not need in any case to be controlled by man because it has been regulating its populations for some time. millions of years. You don’t need us to do it. ”
In his opinion, “it borders on the ridiculous that they continue to control wolf populations. The only thing we achieve is the same as up to now: that the animal cannot spread through its historical territories that cover the entire Iberian Peninsula ”.
The indiscriminate hunting of the species has caused a contraction of populations, until in the 70s of the 20th century there were just over 200 specimens in the northwest of the peninsula. “Thanks to the intervention of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente and the Hunting Law of 1970”, says the researcher, it was possible that it was considered a hunting piece. Before, its condition was that of “vermin”, by virtue of a 1953 rule from the Franco era and that is why it could be hunted without limits like other animals including eagles, lynxes, magpies, bears or foxes, among others.
“The subsequent hunting law subjected the wolf to a closed regime and that it could only be hunted during the stipulated period. It was a tremendous achievement that helped to recover populations”, explains Ángel M. Sánchez.
Today in official censuses there is talk of the presence of about 2,000 individuals of wolves. However, the professor believes that the reality is that they do not exceed 1,000 (because the average herd size is more or less half that indicated in the official figures) and that there are certain areas that have a low density, especially south of the Duero: Salamanca, Ávila, Segovia or Soria -in the latter, there has been no evidence of reproduction of the species for years- in Guadalajara or Madrid (where it is not settled permanently and there is constant displacement of populations by anthropic influence). “In these border areas of the distribution area, the attacks that are talked about are almost always produced by dogs and that is not said, but it causes an increase in the official figures of attacks that are published. In the case of Madrid, all the compensation is paid, yes ”.
Protection comes on time only if it is actually applied so that it is neither hunted nor controlled, except in special cases. That would allow it to spread through its historical territories
Scientific publications and field observation, he explains, indicate that the average herd size ranges between three and five individuals. “It is what we see in the field. The groups are smaller in the south than in the north. This does not mean that the numbers do not increase in the post-breeding season. The litters can reach five or six, but the species has an enormous mortality, which does not alter the average numbers indicated above ”.
Does the protection come in time? We ask. “Only if it is really applied so that it is neither hunted nor controlled, except in special cases. That would allow it to spread over its historical territories.”
And it is that this species faces a key problem for its survival that does not happen only by the number of copies. Its “little genetic variability” conditions it a lot. The current specimens are descended from “a very small number of individuals”.
The scientist believes that “it would be necessary to promote safe corridors so that wolves can enter the Iberian Peninsula, providing the genetic flow that the species needs to be viable in the future.”
But before that happens, he says, “it will be necessary to repopulate habitats for the new individuals” because the places where this species usually lives “are in a poor state of conservation, especially south of the Duero. They are hyper fragmented or invaded by extensive livestock that has grown more than 80% in areas such as Ávila and Segovia ”.
It even points out how the arrival in Spain of non-autochthonous livestock breeds, from central Europe, has caused “there are authentic bulldozers that favor desertification and eutrophication of upper river beds. Where there are many cows of these breeds, there cannot be wild ungulates because they cannot find sustenance. ”
This situation can be solved from your point of view. “We must remove the private sectors with clear interests from the debate on the conservation of species. By this I do not mean that their opinion should be dispensed with. No. But first the species that are Common Natural Heritage are protected and then private interests are looked at and how to make them compatible, which they are ”.
He also believes that the livestock sector “has no other option: if agro-livestock farms are not made compatible with the environment and biodiversity, they will disappear.” At this point, he insists that “from a scientific and conservationist perspective, a step must be taken to separate the private sector that benefits from aid from that which has to do with the conservation of the wolf and other emblematic species, a common heritage that must be protected without external interference ”.
For this researcher, “the livestock sector uses the wolf as a scapegoat, but it has nothing to do with its problems, which are lower prices, lack of competitiveness, extra-community imports …”
Ángel M. Sánchez recalls that in Spain the agricultural and livestock sector receives “important subsidies of public money” and maintains that “it has little to do, for example, with that of Kenya or another Third World country: where predator attacks or large animals that destroy their crops, if they can do a lot of damage since they are subsistence family economies and also, they lack aid of any kind. It is clear that everything can be improved, but in general terms, in the EU countries, we have a very well protected primary sector. I am not against good livestock, the other way around, but it is a private activity that should leave the decision-making tables on conservation ”, he clarifies.
On the table, situation reports in Madrid, Galicia and Asturias
The initiative to study the complex population dynamics of the wolf and evaluate the conservation situation of the natural habitats that the species occupies, through Citizen Science, emerged in 2015. In 2019 it ended up at the University of Alcalá.
It is a volunteer project aimed at training naturalists and scientists that collects and analyzes data to help assess the conservation status of the wolf in Spain, from an independent perspective.
The European Union now urges member countries to update all population censuses. “They will have to be done more exhaustively. We are available to anyone who can use our proven methodology and the people we have trained, to try to provide reliable information in any geographic region that the wolf occupies or will occupy in the future ”.
But the year and a half of the pandemic has slowed down both the incorporation of volunteers to the project and the training in various parts of Spain. “We hope that we can soon forget about these two years and start training people for new areas again and go out into the field again to collect data in which we already have a presence.”
The National Volunteering for the Census of the Iberian Wolf and the Evaluation of the Conservation Status of its Natural Habitats has pending the publication of several reports on the conservation situation of the wolf in different autonomous communities, including Galicia, Madrid, Castilla la Mancha and Asturias. “We hope to be able to do so in the next few years.”
It recognizes that a “so ambitious” project requires a higher level of funding. Currently Ángel M. Sánchez holds meetings with other scientists in the international arena to open a new line of research on the current state of health of the wolf in the Iberian Peninsula as well as its genetic variability. “We believe that it is interesting to compare the populations of the Iberian Peninsula with a view to conservation. In Portugal they have been with the protected wolf since the 1980s and have a lot of experience, working in collaboration with them and with other European countries where the wolf is already settled would be very relevant “.