Hunted almost to extinction in France in the 1930s, the grey wolf then earned endangered species protection, making a remarkable comeback with some 200 wolves colonizing in the southern regions and now inflicting costly losses on the sheep industry.
The wolves, believed to come from Italy during the 1990s and as their population grows, they expand their range farther north in France.
“We have had lots of dead and injured sheep,” Lionel Serres told the BBC. “The flock is in a pretty sorry state. Some are lame, they are stressed, and some are so frightened they have miscarried lambs.”
During summer months, his 250 head of sheep graze and roam in high meadows of the French Alps. At night, Serres must pen them behind an electric fence. The wolves, however, circle the pens until the sheep are so frighted they jump the fence.
The losses have become so costly Serres has had to hire another shepherd who sleeps with the sheep at night. He blames wolf attacks for killing 17 ewes, with another 10 still missing.
Along the road to Hautes Alpes in southeastern France are large signs, painted with “NO to the wolf” by farmers angry over their losses. This year alone there have been nearly 600 attacks which have killed over 2,000 sheep, a 20 percent rise over the same period a year ago.
So intense has the pressure become on hunting the wolves, the local prefect has ordered the hunt for one individual wolf believed to be inflicting most of the killings and injuries.
An anti-hunting law on wolves went into effect in 2004, and since then only four wolves have been killed. The current rule dictates the wolf can only be killed by shepherds trained and licensed to protect their flocks or by a government marksman.
Remy Saunier is the primary wolf spotter for the area and now sends small patrols out at night in search of the animals “The wolf will always take the easiest prey,” he said, BBC reports. “If it's easy he comes back, and that's what he's done here, every other night. We have tried to scare it with lights and noise but it returns. It is only our presence in these mountains that are limiting the wolf attacks.”
Saunier notes that while many in France have welcomed the wolf’s comeback, calling it a “mystical animal,” it might be a different story were it their sheep being killed, adding “if these people woke in the morning to find their flock decimated, they might change their opinion.”
Critics of the wolf patrols, however, suggest some of the deaths are the result of wild dogs. In addition, the farmers receive $190 for each sheep killed by a wolf, and they claim this is an incentive for exaggerating the problem.
Others suggest the shepherds need to do more to protect their animals, even as some of the shepherds are supporters of wolves. Still, more focus should be placed on the wild dogs, said Jean-Francois Darmstaedter, secretary general of Ferus, a wolf protection agency in France.
“Remember there are eight million dogs in France and 200 wolves,” he said, according to BBC. “And I would bet there are more dog attacks in these mountains than wolf attacks. In this small region here we have a pack of 15 wolves, and something like 8,000 wild dogs. They aren't always in the mountains, but when they are, they cause a real mess.”
Because of the wolf’s nature to expand its habitat, some are calling for a wolf “parliament” where wolf supporters, farmers, and politicians can all provide input in studying the wolf problem.
The news comes at a time when a study on wolves in Sweden showed the animals are under the severe threat of poaching, so much so over the last decade that their numbers could have been four times greater. Because of the pressure, the remaining wolves suffer high inbreeding resulting from skeletal deformities and reproductive problems.