Howls over wolves' return
Many people welcomed the idea of wolves in the French Alps, but toshepherds it's a catastrophe.
High on the sunlit uplands of the French Alps, amid juniper bushes and marmot burrows, a scattered flock of sheep graze peacefully on the last of the summer pasture under their shepherd's watchful eye.Skip to next paragraph
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Little do they know that lurking nearby is a pack of wolves. Nor that those wolves have propelled them into the center of an impassioned debate about whether man can ever live with his age-old enemy, canis lupus, in this wild and spectacular corner of Europe.
Philosophical reflection about man's place in nature is not foremost among Frederic Bues's priorities, though. A local sheep breeder, he lost 57 of his ewes last year to wolves, he says. As far as he is concerned, "sheep breeding and wolves are incompatible. The only solution is to eradicate the wolves."
That would be illegal, though, under wildlife protection laws. All the more so since many of the wolves - and many of the sheep - live in natural parks. "If you want the beauty of the park, you have to take the beast with it," says Jean-Yves Astruc, director of the Queyras Regional Park.
Which leaves the shepherds with a challenge. "The wolf has arrived, and we have to try to see if we can make do," says Olivier Bel, president of the local shepherds' association. "We just want to reduce the number of casualties as far as possible, and go on working at a job we love."
Wolves had been extinct in France for more than half a century until 1992, when a pair was sighted in the southern Alps. Apparently the two had crossed the border from Italy, where hundreds of European wolves roam down in the distant Abruzzi mountains.
Just as in the United States, where deliberate wolf reintroduction programs have sparked controversy, "park rangers were delighted to see the wolf arrive; sheep breeders saw it as a catastrophe," recalls Pierre Braque, author of a government report on the wolf's return.
Today, some 50 wolves are believed to prowl the French Alps, and the shepherds' fears have been realized: Wolves are blamed for more than 1,000 sheep deaths last year, mauling them or panicking them into cliff-edge stampedes. This year's figures are expected to be worse.
Few of the sheep that make the Alps an open-air larder for a wolf live in the region year round. Most of them come up from the lowlands of the south of France in the spring, in a centuries-old migratory tradition known as la transhumance, to spend five months on mountain pastures.
With lamb prices low and conditions difficult, French sheep breeders survive only thanks to European Union subsidies. Even with that aid, life is touch-and-go for those with smaller flocks of a few hundred animals. Their patience is running thin.
"We've got enough difficulties as it is," complains Mr. Bues, who took over his father's flock four years ago. "These wolves are the last straw. If I'd known they were around, I wouldn't have gone into this business."
Something has to be done, insists Mr. Braque, a senior Agriculture Ministry official, "or we'll end up with the Italian situation, where the wolves are officially protected, but they get shot anyway."
Already, some farmers are taking matters into their own hands. The skinned body of a wolf was left at the entrance to the Mercantour National Park in the southern Alps this summer, and rumors abound of shepherds leaving poisoned sheep carcasses on mountainsides where wolves are known to hunt.
"For us there is only one solution," says Serge Jousselme, an official with the local young farmers' association. "It is to put the wolves in a park. We can talk about its size, but they have to be shut in and managed."
For naturalists, that is unthinkable.
"To put a wolf in an enclosed space makes the species meaningless," argues Michel Blanchet, chief scientist at the Queyras park. "You wouldn't be keeping wolves, you'd be keeping just a memory of wolves."