Wolf restaurants: serving up 5-star conservation

Wolves are making a return to Europe at a staggering rate. The recent expedition of a young female, Naya, who was being tracked by Technical University of Dresden via a GPS collar, began a new chapter for the modern history of wolves; recovery.  Naya, who had travelled across the continent from Germany, took up residence in an old army base in Belgium and marked the first time in centuries wolves had totally recolonised the European continent.  While scientists and nature enthusiasts rejoice in the rebirth of Europe’s wolves, not everybody shares this sentiment. Naya and her future offspring, will be protected under EU law from persecution however she will still subject to considerable risk from Belgian farmers who do not wish to see wolves’ impasse onto their lands due to the threat they pose to livestock. This feeling seems to be common among Europe’s rural communities.

A wolf. Naya’s arrival in Belgium completes the return of the predator to every continental country in Europe. Photograph: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/AFP/Getty Images
A wolf. Naya’s arrival in Belgium completes the return of the predator to every continental country in Europe. Photograph: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/AFP/Getty Images

In France in 2017, wolves killed 11,000 livestock animals (official government tally. 2017). in 2016, 10,234 were killed, up from 9,112 the previous year. The problem has become so severe that shepherds marched their livestock into the centre of Paris and demanded wolf culls. In 2015 extreme actions were taken when Guy Chaumereuil, president of the Vanoise National Park, was kidnapped along with director Emmanuel Michau following a public outcry over livestock depredations from wolves.  Fifty farmers are believed to have been involved after they grew tired of the lack of legislation protecting their livelihood from wolf attacks.

It is clear that the current model of conservation is not working as it does not look to mitigate conflict, rather it uses an outdated compensation scheme that is not satisfactory to farmers.

The research we conducted seeks to arm conservationists and policy makers with a new strategy for wolf management. The study tested the viability of managing wolf populations via the presence of managed “wolf restaurants”. Wolf restaurants in this context refers to supplementary feeding of wolves in close proximity to their den or areas where wolves frequent within their territory. This plays on wolves’ instinct to opportunistically scavenge on carrion. An individual based model was built using the Netlogo software. The model was used to computationally test this theory as it has not yet been attempted in the field. This form of management was tested in two simulated wilderness areas; a large area (3000km2) and a smaller area (312km2). This approach has previously been used to model the spatial ecology of scavengers (Kane et al., 2016a, 2014)

The results of this study seem to be promising for the future of wolf conservation science. A key argument for wolf presence in the environment is their ability to trigger trophic cascades that enhance the ecosystem from the top down (Ripple, 2012). It is true that ecosystems in the absence of apex predators, such as wolves, tend to experience high grazing, poorer wildlife fitness, high predation pressure; all of which act as factors to cause ecosystem degradation (Wallach et al, 2015). A worry that was associated with this study was that the presence of these restaurants would detriment the wolves’ ability to naturally control the ecosystem. This was not the case however, in the smaller wilderness area our results suggest that wolves will disperse less, predate less on livestock but will still regulate the ecosystem via predation of wild prey even when wolf restaurants were present in the system. We found that high prey density was a key factor in wolves simultaneously availing of the restaurants and regulating the ecosystem via predation.

In the large wilderness area wolves did consume less prey when wolf restaurants were available to them, this was due to a lower prey density. Studies suggest that this may not be as detrimental to the strategy than we believed (Ritchie et al 2012) found that ecosystem inhabitants change their behavioural ecology in the presence of a predator. Elk (Cervus canadensis) in active wolf areas consume less vegetation (and lower quality), have higher stress levels, lower reproductive rates and higher calf mortality than areas without wolves. The consequences of these non-lethal effects on prey demographics could trigger these trophic cascades in a similar fashion to direct predation. If this is the case then this management strategy may be able to regenerate ecosystems twofold; via wolf presence in a central area and via direct predation without over harvesting of wild prey.

It is important to note that no management strategy will be totally effective in isolation. This strategy is designed to be used in conjunction with other strategies such as population zoning, annual culls and improved livestock security. Future research will be needed to investigate how wolf restaurants will eventually fit into the wider mosaic of a fully formed management plan, and its effectiveness when used in conjunction with the other strategies named above. Finally, wolves have taken up residence in the European countryside once again after 100 years of absence. We must not take this for granted. We must work within our power to improve on the mistakes of the past, and work towards a future where wolves and men can co-exist once again, as they did for millennia. This new strategy of management for this species could help to mitigate conflict with wolves and farmers and ease the recovery of wolves back into Europe.

“It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home, not just for us, but for all life on Earth.” Sir David Attenborough.

References

Kane, A., Jackson, A., Monadjem, A., Colomer, M. and Margalida, A. (2014). Carrion ecology modelling for vulture conservation: are vulture restaurants needed to sustain the densest breeding population of the African white-backed vulture?. Animal Conservation, 18(3), pp.279-286.

Kane, A., Healy, K., Ruxton, G. and Jackson, A. (2016). Body Size as a Driver of Scavenging in Theropod Dinosaurs. The American Naturalist, 187(6), pp.706-716.

Ritchie, E., Elmhagen, B., Glen, A., Letnic, M., Ludwig, G. and McDonald, R. (2012). Ecosystem restoration with teeth: what role for predators?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 27(5), pp.265-271.

Wallach, A., Ripple, W. and Carroll, S. (2015). Novel trophic cascades: apex predators enable coexistence. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 30(3), pp.146-153

Kilian Murphy
About Kilian Murphy 1 Article
Kilian Murphy is a final year Environmental Science student in Trinity College Dublin, set to graduate in May 2018. He is currently working for the Irish Wildlife Trust conducting ecological fieldwork to develop a management plan for a regenerating woodland and wetland ecosystem. Kilian hopes to complete a PhD in the near future. His main interest lies with the behaviour, evolution and ecology of large predators, especially wolves. He is also interested in how land use affects biodiversity and ecosystem functionality. Kilian is looking to expand his skills in conservation and ecological research and would welcome any position that would help him achieve this.

1 Comment on Wolf restaurants: serving up 5-star conservation

  1. Interesting idea. I admit I am always skeptical of management practices that require a lot of human intervention long-term, but this was clearly addressed in the article as a limitation of the program. Also liked the acknowledgment that current policies do not adequately support farmers and their needs. Will be interested to see this work unfold…

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