Madrid — Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf? In parts of northwest Spain, many people are. There, the dreaded beast of popular lore is still seen by many as public enemy No. 1.
But the fact that Spain is the last country in Western Europe to have a significant wolf population has led to a campaign to protect them, and keep them from being persecuted to extinction as they have been in most other countries.
``Spain is Europe's last chance to save the wolf,'' says Cosme Morillo, a conservation authority with Spain's National Institute for Wildlife Protection.
In a country where an awareness of ecology is just beginning to awaken, the business of protecting the wolf is no easy task.
Conservation authorities find themselves caught between ecologists who want to preserve the disappearing wolf at all costs and local farmers who are bent on exterminating an animal that is a predator and source of daily concern in many areas.
Recently, when it came to ratifying an international agreement on wildlife protection, Spanish congressmen amended the clause on wolves from a species ``to be strictly protected'' to simply ``a protected species.''
Says Luis Benavides, a senator who sat on the committee that studied the treaty: ``If you prohibit people from getting after the wolves, you go against the wishes of the people. For all my ecological wishes, I can't tell a sheep farmer to put up with them.''
Spain's rough mountain areas and vast stretches of unusable and uninhabited land along with a rich wildlife and great tradition of free grazing have made for an ideal habitat for wolves. However, changes in farming practices, creeping industry, and spreading cities are also threatening the wolf's existence.
Conservationists in other countries have been putting pressure on Spanish authorities to do more to protect the wolf.
Barring localized points in central Europe and the mighty steppes of Russia, the wolf has all but disappeared from the continent.
There are probably as many as 1000 wolves here. This compares with 100 in Italy, and a dozen in all of Scandinavia.
The wolf disappeared from the forests of France and Germany in the first part of the century, and has been extinct in England since the 17th century.
Hatred of the wolf, still alive in Spanish culture, goes back centuries to when the sheep played a big role in Spain's economic and political life as a main source of wealth, and the wolf was its major enemy.
Decrees dating back to the 17th century that mobilized entire villages to hunt the wolf were renewed as recently as 1963.
A 1970 hunting law was the first step to saving the wolf from sure extermination, by including it into the category of hunted animals, and regulating its capture, outlawing the use of poison, and killing its young.
Nonetheless, in many parts of the northwest, local authorities, autonomous in environmental matters, pay little heed to the national authorities and still put a price on the head of the wolf.