A howl of a time: counting wolves in France

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The setting fits the story. The Southern Alps of France lie between Cézanne's Provence and Mont Blanc in a space where you can see both the painter's flowing landscapes and the jagged caps of Europe's highest mountain.

The area is also where much of the country's wolf population resides. The animals, which reappeared in France only a few years ago, are stuck in the middle of a controversy over whether or not they should be allowed to stay.

Stuck right alongside them are two men: one who delves into the philosophy of sheep and another who howls into an orange traffic cone in the middle of the night.

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Killed off with government's help in the early 1900s, Italian gray wolves reappeared in France in the early 1990s. Environmentalists couldn't be happier; not only has a species returned, but the ecosystem is also healthy enough to support a new top-tier animal on the food chain.

The problem is, the wolves' food chain includes sheep, and, despite appearances, sheep are a billion-dollar-a-year big business in France. Quite simply, sheep owners want the wolves dead but they are protected by Europe's Bern Convention.

"We became used to them not being here. Now that they have come back, of course sheep owners think it's a constraint!" exclaims Marc Mallen, a former shepherd who describes himself as an "ethnopastoralist" - an expert in the relationships between shepherds and the land they work.

Driving up tiny roads toward his home above Gap, Mr. Mallen explains the complexities of the issue. Sheep owners and shepherds are not usually one in the same, he points out. As the sheep industry evolved in the last century, shepherds became something like hired guns, forced to watch over larger and larger flocks.

"In the '50s, a shepherd watched over 500 animals," he says. "Now, it's 1,500 and sometimes more."

Trouble is, the larger the flock, the easier it is for wolves to find an easy meal. "When you have flocks this big, you'll have more damage from wolves," Mallen says.

Stuck between the powerful sheep owners and the "ecolos," the French government has only made small gestures to each side, but they are committed to keeping tabs on the wolf population.

Enter the man with the traffic cone. Yannick Léonard is one of four wolf experts at the Office Nationale de la Chasse et Faune Sauvage (ONCFS), the French fish and wildlife department. He makes a conscious effort to stay out of the politics and do his job: Count wolves and figure out what the population is doing.

"I have an opinion, but when you work for the state, your job is to give good information to the decisionmakers," he says.

After driving into the Alps along the Italian border, he arrives for a late-night meeting with other wolf experts and volunteers. Their goal: to gather data to help determine if the wolf population is growing.

Their method: howling into traffic cones.

Just before 10 p.m., Mr. Léonard breaks the 11-person group into smaller groups and they set out into the mountains. Later, climbing up the side of a valley, he turns around and calls out, "Doing all right back there? No vertigo?" Looking back, the light from his headlamp vanishes over a sheer drop on the trail's edge.

An hour into the hike, Léonard stops shy of where he originally wanted to go because the trail has washed down the hill. He makes a few quick radio calls to other members of his team. By synchronizing, they won't mistake each other's howls for a wolf's.

Then he lifts the cone to his lips: "Aaaawwoooooohhhhhooooo!!!!"

The sound fills the valley and spooks a local shepherd into calling Léonard on the radio to make sure it's not a real predator getting ready to snack on her flock.

"Adults have a sort of classic howl - 'Awooo,' " he explains, "and the pups yip." The presence of pups means the population is reproducing, something it has been doing slowly since the wolves were first found here.

He howls three times for a total of 30 seconds, listens for a few minutes, then tries again. On this night, Léonard does not hear any responses, but a member of the team in another location heard a howl and even had a sighting: the group's car almost hit a wolf on their way out to the howling site.

Along with the howling, the ONCFS runs DNA tests of wolf excrement, investigates photos sent in by hikers, and tracks wolves following a snowfall. Though this seems far from rocket science, this collection of loose methods gives Léonard a good grasp of population numbers; he estimates there are between 80 and 100 wolves across the country.

Back up on his hill, Mallen reflects on the best solution for the issue. "Time," he says. "We'll help teach shepherds better ways to protect their flock, and the ecolos will understand that it's okay to kill a wolf from time to time."

Asked if that sounds a bit harsh, Mallen replies with a knowing grin "You'd have to be a good shot to hit a wolf."

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