April 13, 2024

‘We’d like to shoot them all’: growing army of wolfdogs causes controversy across Europe | Wild animals

FFrom the moment rangers first saw him on trail cameras, the problem was apparent. The wolf, spotted deep in the forest of Gran Bosco di Salbertrand park in Italy, was not gray like its companion, but rather an unusual blond. Its coloring indicated that it was not a wolf, but a hybrid wolfdog – the first to be seen so far in the Alpine region of Piedmont. And where one hybrid is found, others will certainly emerge.

“We thought he would go away,” says Elisa Ramassa, a ranger at Gran Bosco Park who has been following local wolves for 25 years. “Unfortunately, he found a woman who loves blondes.”

The blond specimen spotted in Piedmont illustrates the latest development in a worrying new trend. Over the past two decades, Europe’s decimated wolf population has been slowly resurrected through years of painstaking conservation work. Now, the number of hybrids is growing rapidly – ​​and if their spread continues, scientists fear they could put the European wolf – as a wild and genetically distinct animal – at risk of extinction.

In Piedmont, the blond hybrid produced at least two pairs of offspring before disappearing. “From one event, we now have several hybrid packs,” says Luca Anselmo, wolf tracker and researcher at Life WolfAlps EU, a multi-year, multi-million dollar initiative to support the return of wolves to Europe and reduce their conflicts with humans. .

Hybrid wolfdogs are not a new phenomenon. Although modern-day wolves and dogs are distinct subspecies, they belong to the same canine family and have maintained genetic overlap since humans began domesticating the wolves’ ancient ancestors thousands of years ago. However, modern wolfdog hybrids had not been well studied until recently, when advances in genetics made it possible to prove their existence. When Luigi Boitani, Italy’s leading wolf expert, captured a hybrid in 1975, he says he “faced everything from gentle opposition to [people who] said: ‘that’s bullshit’.

Time proved Boitani right. Today, a growing number of studies point to the presence of hybrids in almost all European wolf countries, and in some areas their numbers are growing steadily. In Boitani’s native Tuscany, and other regions, they have become endemic, representing up to 70% of the wolf population. The increase has been driven by the increasing destruction of wolf habitats and the expansion of human settlements, which bring people, their pets and packs of stray dogs into more frequent contact with wolf packs.

In some regions “they are basically all hybrids”, says Boitani. “In this case, there is nothing you can do. You can’t send in the army and kill everything.”

Hybrids trouble conservationists, in part because of their unpredictability. They could increase conflict with humans, drive pure-blood wolves from their habitat or reduce the viability of future offspring, hampering efforts to revive the wolf population in Europe.

  • Counterclockwise from top: rangers search Gran Bosco di Salbertrand park for signs of wolves; camera traps are used to learn more about their behavior; Luca Anselmo (left), wolf researcher and tracker

Some fear that interbreeding will result in the permanent loss of the wolf’s distinctive attributes. “If tomorrow I see a black and white animal, with floppy ears and a long tail, and you tell me it is a wolf, I will [would] in truth [be] disappointed,” says Boitani. “I don’t want to see wolves like that.”

For many conservationists, these hybrids represent humanity’s growing stamp on a revered wild species. They are often the result of neglected working dogs mixing with isolated wolves, whose packs may have been disrupted by culling or poaching. In the words of Ramassa, the park ranger, they are “a human error”.

“We are accelerating a process that could have occurred naturally,” says Valeria Salvatori, a wolf expert who led the first European study on hybridization. “It’s like global warming… we have a duty to mitigate this impact.”

  • Francesca Marucco, Science Coordinator at Life WolfAlps EU, has been studying wolves for over 20 years

But there is considerable disagreement about what that mitigation should look like. Some experts, like Francesca Marucco, science coordinator at Life WolfAlps EU, take a harder line. “We would like to film… everything [the hybrids] as quickly as possible,” she says.

This approach is being adopted by authorities such as Austria, Switzerland, Poland and Slovenia. A wolf that bred with a dog in Slovenia was recently slaughtered along with all of her offspring – except one, who managed to cross the border into Italy. Animal rights groups in Italy have strongly opposed the cull and it is more likely that the hybrids will be left alive long enough to reproduce.

With such a long history of interbreeding between species, some conservationists question an aggressive approach. In Poland,
Researchers are conducting investigations into the potential advantages of hybridization. In Yellowstone National Park, in the USA, for example, it was discovered that hybrid wolves have greater resistance to certain diseases.

Wolfdog hybrids may also be better adapted to survive in a world where wolves are increasingly forced to live in urban environments. “In the modern, human-dominated world, it might be useful for wolves to have some similar behavior to dogs,” says Miha Krofel, a Slovenian researcher. “I think the costs outweigh the benefits… [but] We don’t really have an understanding of how hybrids are problematic for human-wolf conflict.”

Others are trying to better understand how hybrids behave in the wild and whether they occupy the ecological niche of wolves. When Anselmo’s team learned of the hybrid pack in Piedmont, they decided not to kill them, but to capture and sterilize them. For 25 days, Anselmo and his team chased a hybrid, whom they named Godot, along mountain slopes, observing strict Italian social welfare laws that require them to remain 30 minutes away from the trap.

Eventually, Godot was captured, castrated, and collared, along with one of his brothers. Their collar data has so far shown that the hybrid pack behaves like any other and appears to suffer no discrimination from its pure-blooded peers.

“We feared that he would behave more like a dog – looking for humans or coming close to houses in search of food,” says Ramassa. “But no, he’s like a wolf.”

Ultimately, however, Anselmo admits that the catch and release system is not a practical large-scale solution. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “Trapping wolves is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Addressing the conservation risk that wolfdogs pose will require some consensus among scientists – and society at large – about how to respond to hybridization events.

“They need to have courage and decide: what do we want to preserve?” says Salvatori. “Do we want to preserve wolves? Or something that evolved from wolves, under the pressure we put on the environment?”

  • As hybrids continue to spread, can the European wolf survive as a wild, genetically distinct animal?

Find more age of extinction coverage here and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston It is Patrick Greenfield on X for the latest news and features

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