The French Alps are straight out of a storybook. Snow-capped mountains give way to tumbling waterfalls and blooming wildflowers. To complete the fairytale landscape, one of the region’s oldest villains is back in town: the wolf.
Wolves, once extirpated from the country, have recently made headlines in Europe as they rebound: Over the last 19 years, areas that show evidence of wolf populations in France have increased 15 percent each year. Shepherds, whose sheep make a tasty meal for the predators, are demanding specially authorized culls. With few other options, some shepherds have resorted to poaching, which government protection agencies have denounced. The controversy is raging in France as fiercely as it is in the American West.
“Wolves are the predator of Europe,” from both a cultural and biological standpoint, says Luigi Boitani, a professor at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and chairman of the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe. “It is the most important predator that we have.”
Once upon a time, the gray wolf, a close relative of the gray wolf in the U.S., thrived throughout Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula into Asia. But by the early twentieth century, hunting had reduced its range to the Italian Apennines and Iberian Peninsula. In France, there was no trace of the wolf by 1930.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that park and forestry guards observed the first wolves in the country in more than 60 years. Protected by both French and international law, the wolves, which came from Italy, developed a foothold in the Alps. Since then, their numbers and territory have expanded. By 2009, the State Ministries’ monitoring efforts showed that about 200 wolves lived in France.
Two things are responsible for their return, Boitani explains. First, people began moving from rural and mountainous spaces to cities and towns, and abandoned farmland became wilderness. Second, wildlife, including boar and deer, a main food source for wolves, expanded and relocated into those areas.
Conflicts with wolves have centered around their predation on livestock. In response, the French government started offering remuneration for any loss to flocks. In 2010, for example, the government spent more than 1.1 million euros in compensation for 1,090 attacks on livestock. The government, with the assistance of the European Union, also invested more than 2 million euros in training shepherds in older methods of husbandry—such as using a sheepdog—that had fallen out of use in the absence of predators. But shepherds are resistant to these changes and see the wolf as yet another threat to an already struggling livelihood.
Despite their fairytale reputation in Europe—gobbling up little girls or huffing-and-puffing-down houses—ordinary citizens seem to welcome the return of the big, bad wolf. “I would be cautious if I knowingly entered an area inhabited by wolves,” says Kimberly Strom, a prodigious hiker who lives in France’s Jura Mountains.
That said, Strom, who has traversed thousands of miles in the region, observes that it’s best to respect any creature you encounter—wolves, boars, or even cows. “I don’t think humans should have the power to dictate whether or not an animal belongs in the environment it finds itself able to survive.”
She is not alone in the sentiment. Popular opinion in France overwhelmingly supports the wolf’s protection, say wildlife managers. According to a study (PDF) done in 1999 and 2000, a majority of citizens in the regions where wolves were rebounding are in favor of the predator’s protection. “Citizens have welcomed the wolf’s return and are not afraid of growth in wolf populations,” says Sandrine Andrieux-Rolland of the French wolf-bear-lynx protection group FERUS.
For those hoping to protect the charismatic carnivore, this is a positive sign and suggests that the wolf’s story may have a happy ending, after all.