Culling wolves a pack mentality

WORLD Wildlife Fund president for Spain, King Juan Carlos, was ‘outed’ early last year for hunting elephants in Botswana.

King Gustav of Sweden, another WWF patron, blotted his conservation copybook by calling for wolves to be killed. Both monarchs’ realms are in the dock for their treatment of wolves, but a Swedish court has intervened.

Pilgrims trudging to Compostella, under the merciless Spanish sun, please note; there’s a paradise of jagged peaks, stunning vistas and corrie lakes, just south of the road from Santander to Orviedo. The Picos de Europa offered weary mariners, returning to Spain during the age of exploration, their first glimpse of Europe, hence the name. Water, cascading from 2,500 metre-high summits, has cut awe-inspiring canyons, clefts and ravines in Burren-like limestone. Oak beech and chestnut forests cloak the lower slopes. The range has deep caves and Picu Urriellu offers the most famous climb in Spain. This hiker’s paradise has chamois, bears, wild boar, black woodpeckers and eagles. There are six wolf packs in the region; 30 to 55 animals. Farmers complain that cows, sheep and goats are taken by wolves. In 2009, they claimed to have lost 73 animals to the predators. Poison is laid illegally and wolves are shot ("I thought it was a dog" being the standard excuse). Compensating farmers is a burden on cash-strapped local authorities, so a cull of wolves is organised each year. It’s illegal to hunt in Spain’s first national park, but when culling the law is ignored.

In a research project that cost €300,000, scientists placed radio collars on wolves to track their movements in the Picos. According to Wildlife News Extra, two of the collared animals have been shot. Officialdom is financing wolf protection while paying marksmen to kill the protected animals.

Wolves are a problem for farmers, but revenue from eco-tourism benefits the local economy. The Picos has the largest wolf population in Western Europe; it’s the only place visitors can see this iconic "dog" in the wild. During four glorious days hiking there, I failed to encounter a wolf. Wolf-watching tours are advertised on the web; I should have availed of local expertise. So, is Spain killing a goose that lays golden eggs? Negative publicity about wolves won’t help the tourist industry.

The targeting of wolves in Sweden has dented that country’s reputation for enlightened conservation. Twenty-eight wolves were killed under licence in 2010, to the dismay of the WWF. "It’s a sad day for all those who care about nature," said the president of the country’s Society for Nature Conservation. In 2011, 20 were shot and the European Commission reprimanded Sweden for culling a red-listed species. This year, the Environmental Protection Agency authorised the shooting of 16 wolves. Now, following appeals by animal rights groups, a Stockholm court has suspended the order.

Three wolves had been killed prior to the decision. The reason given for the cull is intriguing. Sweden’s wolves are said to be descended from a few animals that arrived in the country from Finland 30 years ago. A "selected and targeted cull of inbred wolves" would be "a step towards reducing inbreeding", the authorities claim. It’s the only way "to reduce the level of inbreeding in the short term". But how does eliminating members of a population, thereby reducing the gene-pool, solve an in-breeding problem? Would it not make more sense to introduce some new blood? King Gustav hadn’t inbreeding in mind. He is a hunter for whom the wolf is a poacher and an outlaw. The country has 400,000 elk, about a quarter of them being shot each year. There are 270 wolves, in 30 or so packs, and the population, it’s claimed, increases by 14% annually. Even so, the impact on the deer population must surely be "a drop in the ocean". Besides, wolves take out old and infirm animals, strengthening a population. In any case, the poor specimens they kill don’t interest hunters.