The Wild World of Wolves
Spain's Wolf Wars
In a culture of indifference, a young biologist struggles to save a species in crisis
"Have you seen any wolves near this pueblo lately?" Luis Mariano Barrientos Benito asks in rapid Spanish as he leans from the window of his muddy brown Land Rover.
The shepherd, or pastor, rises to the question as if it were irresistible bait. His face breaks into a nearly toothless, slightly conspiratorial grin. His darkly weathered skin, from years of exposure to the fierce Spanish sun, seems to break into a hundred wrinkles.
"Wolves?" he asks back. "Do you want to hunt them?"
It is early May in Castilla-Leun, the agricultural flatlands in north central Spain, and biologist Barrientos is looking for wolves. May is the pupping season and the beginning of a new research season. As Barrientos conducts his interview, he realizes that the news is not good. With his boyish face and eager manner, the 34-year-old wolf expert plays along, acting vaguely like a hunter. "Do they hunt wolves here?"
The idea of killing wolves gets the shepherd excited. He cannot quite contain himself. He begins to enact an imaginary drama right next to the Land Rover, sheep swirling around his legs. Suddenly, he spots an imaginary wolf prowling the edges of his flock. He crouches at the knees and stalks toward the invisible predator. Up comes his imaginary rifle. He aims. "If I see a wolf," he says by way of explanation, "I always will kill it."
Pow. He fires, and his performance ends. He smiles.
"Yes, yes," he continues, "they killed wolves here last fall. Two or three. You've got to kill wolves. Wolves kill sheep."
Luis Barrientos jots some notes and drives away from the shepherd. His usually playful brown eyes grow somber. "This is the wolf in Spain," he says, referring to a legal hunt and to a devastating illegal kill of a species that may be in decline. "The people hate it. It's a bad topic, and the wolf has a bad future. The war against the wolf continues."
This interview summarizes the predicament of the wolf in Spain. You don't have to spend much time in the field, speaking to shepherds and farmers and other locals, to realize that a centuries-old animosity toward wolves is still alive. The wolf must be the most hated, the most persecuted animal in history....
The fate of wolves in northern Spain is a microcosm of the history of wolves in Europe. Estimates put the number of the animals in Spain at about 1,500, rising to perhaps 2,000 after pupping season. During this century, the range of the wolf in Spain has slowly shrunk. Once the wolf roamed through most of the Iberian peninsula, but it is now limited to the northern parts of the country, especially the mountainous and remote north coast. Still, 70 percent of all western European wolves live in Spain. Men like Barrientos feel an acute sense of responsibility to save this last large population in western Europe, to stem the historical tide against the wolf.
Saving the wolf will not be easy. A recent poll showed that more than 50 percent of rural people in Barrientos' study area believe the wolf should be exterminated altogether. Another 35 percent said the wolf should be "controlled" until few very survive. The rest were "indifferent." Not one respondent felt that the wolf was a valuable national asset and resource. And yet, attitudes in Castilla-Leun are less severe than those held by people in the north, where shepherds will not even discuss wolves with biologists.
Like other biologists in Spain, Barrientos is afraid that the wolves are losing the war, their numbers declining....Packs in Spain tend to be relatively small, composed of the parental pair, one or two young adults to help with raising the young, and the pups of the year. Barrientos estimates that the packs in this area of Castilla-Leun add up to about 30 to 35 wolves.
By late afternoon, after talking with at least 25 shepherds and farmers, Barrientos reviews his notes, tallying the wolf count. "Sixteen dead," he groans. "In the last few months, hunted by humans."....
The legal wolf hunt is probably the single largest cause of wolf mortality in Spain. The season is set for autumn, when hunters use dogs to drive wolves from cover. Some northern provinces also hold a spring hunt. The seasons began in 1989, when a Royal Decree classified the wolf as a game animal, giving the species protection from uncontrolled hunting. In that year, hunters legally killed 309 wolves....
The legal hunt on such a jeopardized species is problematic enough, Barrientos thinks, but many people feel justified in killing wolves illegally year round. Poison is commonly used. But the most disturbing form of poaching is what North American wolf-hunters used to call denning -- locating pups in a den and killing them....Estimates of the total illegal kill are hard to make, obviously, but biologists feel it pushes the true number of wolves taken by humans up to 500 to 700....
Most hunters believe they are defending livestock against the depredations of a fearsome carnivore. National estimates for 1989, the most recent reliable data, put the livestock losses at about $1 million....
For Barrientos, however, these statistics prove that the virulent hatred toward the wolf runs to much deeper psychological levels than is suggested by an economic problem....In all of Spain's wolf range, Barrientos says, wolf depredations account for only 2.5 percent of the total value of the livestock industry.
In the province of Palencia in 1989, 300 sheep and only 23 cattle were reported killed by wolves. In this domesticated landscape, sheep never graze unattended. They are accompanied by a shepherd and several dogs. The shepherd may well tote a rifle. Among the dogs there is often a huge mastiff, bred to fight wolves. Mastiffs come well above the waist of a medium-sized man and have large, powerful jaws. They also wear another local invention, the carlanca -- a wide and wicked-looking collar studded with ominous spikes. When a wolf goes for the jugular of a dog wearing a carlanca, the wolf gets instead a mouthful of spikes that can so rip apart its mouth that it cannot eat.
Wolves are not killed here because they do damage, says Barrientos. "it's from prejudice and persecution. It's a national disgrace. A barbarity."
....By late evening, through more interviews, Barrientos has zeroed in on one area with a reliable report of wolf sightings. The area looks good for wolves, and it reveals one of the most surprising aspects of the wolf's adaptability in Spain....The countryside is a broad expanse of grain fields, dotted by open areas where the land is left fallow for a year or two to revitalize itself. Occasionally, rocky outcroppings, covered with pines and oaks, rise above the green wheat. These are called montes....
The wolves in Spain do not dig dens to have their pups, as they typically do in North America. Instead, they look for protected cover and have their pups above ground. In this breadbasket of Spain, often the safest place for the wolves to have young is not in the trees of the montes, but in the wheat fields themselves.
In the montes, the wolves leave many tracks, making them easy to follow. Dogs in particular frequently travel in the montes and will track wolves right to the pupping sites. But dogs rarely enter cereal fields. So the wolves find a nice slope or draw in the middle of a vast field of wheat, with water nearby, good promontories to keep a lookout and, perhaps, a large bush, and there they raise their young....
Barrientos works as a volunteer, because he likes wolves. He has no contract. Currently no wolves in Spain, for example, wear radio-collars, the method so central to the study of wolves in North America. Data on population, distribution, mortality and life history are essential to developing a scientific, national management plan for the Spanish wolf. Such data, along with increased funding for research, are the first great need for wolf conservation. Yet, the same Royal Decree that codified the wolf as a creature of the hunt handed over management responsibility to the individual autonomies and provinces, where local administrations are more sensitive to the vocal opinions of their sometimes rabidly anti-wolf constituents.
The second crucial need of wolf conservation in Spain, according to a recent comprehensive wolf study, is a program to compensate shepherds for damages caused by wolves. The existing program is weak because it is left up to local autonomies, some of which choose not to pay out "indemnifications." About a fourth of such damages are compensated. Barrientos says the program should be expanded, so people no longer need to view the wolf as an economic competitor.
....Though he has seen no wolves in the wheat fields, though he has been going since 5:30 in the morning, [Barrientos] is not prepared to give up. He often sleeps on site in his Land Rover, amid a jumble of food and blankets and equipments, so he can be on the job early the next morning. That is his plan tonight.
But first, one last try -- he will howl in the monte. He drives into the trees. In the glow of his flashlight, he sees fresh wolf tracks. He unleashes a long and practiced wolf howl into the clear night. Then another. And another. He listens intently after each howl. Finally, he hears a wolf howling faintly. No, two wolves. Their high-pitched tones are plaintive and wailing and unforgettable.
Barrientos answers, and the howls seem slowly to get closer. Soon, Barrientos is staring into the trees. In a barely audible whisper, he says, "Do you see the shapes of the wolves moving among the shadows?" At last he has found them. Wolves are moving about him in the dark.
Later, in his Land Rover, he pushes back his seat and gets ready to sleep, explaining why he is willing to dedicate himself to the preservation of the wolf. "When there are no wolves," he says, "something is lacking in the country. The wolf is so intelligent, so mythic. Even the long war against the wolves magnifies the wolf. The wolf is my therapy. It is my cure. I don't want to live anywhere, in any country, where there are no wolves."