Large carnivores are keystone species as they exert a disproportionate influence on the ecosystems in which they live.
This pivotal role has been clearly demonstrated in Yellowstone National Park, North America, with a highly controversial but extremely well implemented wolf reintroduction programme.
The ecological changes that have occurred at every level within Yellowstone since the return of the wolf, have far exceeded even the most visionary wolf biologists’ imaginings (Figure 1).
These changes also demonstrate the role and value of the wolf as an umbrella species, providing a measure of ecosystem health.
As conservation biology begins to recognise the significant role that predators play in shaping and maintaining ecosystems, attention has re-focused on this special guild of animals.
The wolf once occupied the whole paleo-arctic region but its’ recent history has been one of persecution and conflict.
Unlike its North American counterpart, the European wolf has proven relatively adaptable to human activities and this has often brought it into close proximity with human interests.
Where livestock is abundant or where ungulates are readily hunted by man, this most often results in conflict.
The historical response to that conflicthas been lethal control and by the middle of the 20th century wolves were gone from allcentral & northern European countries, remaining only in tiny and fragmented populationsin the Mediterranean peninsulas and, in larger numbers, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Various international agreements and conventions, including the Bern Convention, CITES and the EC Habitats Directive, protect the wolf throughout much of Europe, but it is active management and enforcement that will, ultimately, decide the future of the wolf on the Eurasian continent.
There is strong scientific evidence that, with favourable habitat conditions, public acceptance and active mitigation of human-wolf conflict, the wolf will be able to return to much of its former range. It is the relatively intact eastern wolf populations that could provide the best hope for natural re-colonization. Today the central concern for pan-European wolf conservation is to secure core wolf populations and to lay the foundations for re-colonisation from east to west. Ultimately, the return of the wolf will have a major impact on biodiversity conservation and European ecosystem functionality.
Conserving wide-ranging species is fraught with challenges. In ecological terms, wolf density is regulated through territoriality, social behaviour and dispersal. However, in most of the wolf’s pan-Eurasian range, habitat has become increasingly fragmented.
Future management requires a coordinated meta-population approach, securing core areas and developing and promoting natural dispersal corridors. To facilitate this, habitat quality and optimum densities of human activity and wild prey must be determined. It is clear to those actively working towards the wolf’s return that conservation efforts must be based on large-scale strategies encompassing entire regions.
In Europe, the Large Carnivore European Initiative (LCEI) has developed Action Plans for five key species (wolf, Eurasian lynx, Iberian lynx, brown bear and wolverine) that all follow specific guiding principles: population level conservation; zoned management; compensation tied to prevention incentives; and monitoring of public attitudes and perceptions.
The wolf action plan was formulated through consultation with national experts throughout Europe and is based on IUCN’s (former) Wolf Specialist Group “Manifesto & Guidelines on Wolf Conservation”.
Its goal is to “maintain and restore, in coexistence with people, viable populations of wolves as an integral part of ecosystems and landscapes across Europe”.
For a species like the wolf, the situation is further complicated by the prevalence of negative attitudes throughout human society. In areas where wolves have remained, and also places where wolves are returning, conflict with humans is the single most important cause of wolf mortality.
Yet, there are clear and well established ways to protect livestock from wolf predation.
While there is a clear understanding of the ecological needs and minimum viable wolf population number (15 breeding pairs or around 100 wolves) there are no universal criteria for identifying when an area is saturated in terms of human acceptance of the wolf.
Our understanding of the current situation in Western Europe, and our own experiences of working in countries such as Georgia, Romania and Kyrgyzstan make it clear that management of human-carnivore conflict (HCC) is of vital importance to wolf management and, more generally, large carnivore conservation.
Whilst depredation on domestic animals is as old as domestication itself, its perceived impacts – often exaggerated by the psychological associations we have with predators – make it the most serious problem in wolf management and the root cause of current and future threats.
While both the historical and current situation is relatively well-known in Western Europe, where the emphasis is on facilitating the natural re-colonisation of the wolf into areas from where it has been long absent, neither is clearly understood in range countries further to the east.
Much of the continent east of the Balkans has been under a heavy shroud of
secrecy whilst part of the Soviet Union.
Now that shroud has been lifted, information is emerging on the status of the wolf in the region and, generally, it seems they have fared better than the western populations.
Today, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia contain some of the healthiest wolf populations in the world. However, collapse of state-controlled wildlife management programmes and rapid decline of living standards in many parts of the former Soviet Union has placed the future of the species into uncertain territory.
Many national agencies are ill-equipped to deal with the complex issue of carnivore management. Without adequate protection these wolf populations, the source of the genetic diversity required to recolonize other regions, will be severely reduced.
With several key wolf populations across Eurasia, there is a real opportunity to learn more about the role of the wolf as an apex predator species at the landscape scale and to use this learning to secure the species as a permanent feature of a healthy ecosystem.
An informed approach is necessary, and before we can carry out significant work we must truly understand the nature of the issues in the East, developing a better understanding of:
- wolf numbers and distribution within and between the countries;
- the extent of suitable habitat and the potential for natural biological corridors between East and West;
- past and current management regimes in the various countries; scale and nature of human/wolf conflict;
- public attitudes and perceptions of the wolf within each culture; and how the current interactions between humans and wolves play out.
This report represents the first step towards achieving this, providing a comprehensive regional review of existing information.
It has been delivered in two parts; the first, an internet-based literature review focusing on the recent historical status and management of wolves throughout the region and encompassing much of the former Soviet Union and the second, a questionnaire-based survey of NGOs, Government Agencies and researchers currently working in or knowledgeable of wolf management in the target countries (see Figure 2).
Important prey species
Bibikov breaks down his descriptions of prey species by wolf sub-species and so he is fairly broad in terms of geography.
The Caucasus population (ostensibly Canis lupus lupus) preyed primarily upon red deer (Cervus elaphus) and roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) as well as wild boar (Sus scrofa) and mountain goat (Capra caucasia & C. cylindricornus) (Bibikov, 1975; Bibikov, 1982).
In Central Asia, their diet would have included these same species but with the addition of the Caspian red deer (C. elaphus maral) and, in Kazakhstan, the saiga (Saiga tatarica) (Bibikov, 1975; Bibikov, 1982).
Bibikov also notes that domestic animals were an important prey base throughout the region, particularly where livestock farming was prevalent but wild prey was depleted.
An average population of 49,650 was calculated in 2010 and it is believed to have been
stable since the turn of the century. No density data were provided but the respondent
commented that, whilst such data are available at the provincial level, their accuracy is
difficult to gauge.
There was one respondent representing Russia, an academic currently based in the United States and author of a recent paper detailing the impact of the Soviet Union collapse on several large mammal species; including the wolf
The respondent included reference to a map depicting the trends of
population growth throughout the former Soviet Union immediately after its collapse
There is no national management plan for the wolf in Russia but the responsible agency is
the Central Hunting Control, MoNRE.
There is no decentralisation of management, no public involvement in management decisions, no national population target, no regional zoning policies and no transboundary agreements.
The wolf is not protected and there are active control programmes in some provinces (the respondent cites the Yakutia province in particular) which use bounty systems.
No data on wolf deaths are given (except for 5,991 and 7,047 wolves killed in 2008 and 2009 respectively) and no livestock death details. No support is provided to livestock owners for protecting their stock.
The major threats to wolves are given as Habitat Loss, Human disturbance, Lack of tolerance and of knowledge and Poor management.
This last point was emphasised in a comment, stating that “Nobody knows how many wolves are out there or how they should be managed”.