CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – Across Europe, the long-forgotten wolf is making a comeback after decades of protection from hunting. But as the wolf packs grow so do the angry pleas from farmers, shepherds and fearful communities.
Reports of wolf attacks on flocks of sheep and other livestock are common in Italy, France and Germany. With the attacks come growing demands by many officials to strike back and exterminate the predators – as was done for centuries.
“We can't accept that wolves come this close to homes in a valley,” said Maurizio Fugatti, the president of Trento, an Italian province in the Alps, in late January after wolves preyed on lambs near a town. “Citizens can't run such risks.”
He called the wolves a threat to public security, and now police, firefighters and forest service agents in Trento are being asked to investigate wolf sightings.
Against insistence by wildlife experts and environmentalists that wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare, some members of the public have taken matters into their own hands.
Last year in Saxony, a female wolf was shot and dropped into a lake with a concrete weight attached to her. Other poachers have strung up the carcasses of their quarry to protest bans on wolf hunts.
Gray wolves once roamed throughout Europe but by the early 1900s they were largely exterminated. By the time Western and Eastern Europe banned the killing of wolves in the late 1970s, there weren't many left to hunt.
In Western Europe, one of the only places where wolves still roamed was in the central and southern Apennine Mountains of Italy. Scientists believe their numbers were down to about a hundred.
It was from the forests and craggy peaks of the Apennines that wolves slowly began to spread out again. At the same time, populations in Eastern Europe also began recovering.
In the past two decades, wolf packs have returned to the Alps and begun repopulating parts of Germany, Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland that hadn't seen wolves in a very long time. Wolves have even been spotted recently in places like Brittany, in northern France, and Belgium.
Experts say bans on hunting and baiting are only partly responsible for the recovery of a species whose hunting skills are nearly fabled. Skilled at scavenging and adaptation as well, wolves have likely benefitted from the desertion of rural areas and Alpine valleys by humans.
Without even taking into account Russia and Ukraine, there are about 12,000 wolves in Europe today, about twice as many as in the contiguous United States.
But European Union officials say wolves still need protection even as their numbers grow. EU law allows the killing of wolves when they pose a danger to humans and limited hunts that do not put the wolf's recovery in danger.
“In many parts of the European Union, wolf populations remain in vulnerable conservation status,” Daniela Stoycheva, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, said in an email. “For this reason EU rules ensure protection of the species.”
While environmentalists and wildlife lovers are rejoicing the return of the wolf, farmers are seething.
A dramatic example of this took place in 2015 when angry French farmers took two managers of the Vanoise National Park in the French Alps hostage for a night, demanding to be allowed to hunt wolves. This extreme action, which occurred during a spate of so-called “bossnapping” incidents in France, was prompted by a series of wolf attacks on livestock.
In the wide-open pastures of France, sheep are easy pickings for the population of 360 wolves that stalk the French Alps. Wolves slaughter thousands of sheep each year, officials say. France responded in 2017 by allowing hunters to cull 10 percent of France's wolf population a year.