Crying Wolf: A Misguided Canine Extermination Campaign or Sheep Protection?

In the Caucasus, villagers and wolves are currently locked in a deadly zero-sum game. With the recent cold snap in Armenia, some wolves began targeting livestock. Reports indicate that the damage was sometimes considerable, with over a dozen sheep from a single herd killed in some of these attacks. The government on Feb. 9 announced it would reward hunters for each wolf hide they turned in to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Some environmentalists, however, argue that there may be a different reason—aside from the cold—that has driven the wolves closer to villages, and that a different solution may be better both for the wolves and locals.

Around 170 gray wolves have been killed since the government promised monetary rewards to hunters. The prize was roughly $260 (100,000 drams) per hide—a hefty sum for much of rural Armenia. Armenian Environmental Protection Minister Aram Harutiunian told a press conference in mid-February that “because of the heavy snowfall, wolves began to appear more frequently in populated areas, and it became necessary to deal with them.” He added that the species would not face extinction.

Caucasus Nature Fund Executive Director David Morrison, however views the wolf issue as a “tragic story.” “I believe that culling should be a last resort, and that, if used, should be carefully constructed so that it is clear that only animals straying into inhabited areas are targeted—and if possible by trained people,” he told the Armenian Weekly. “A bounty that can be collected by anyone is a drastic measure. I sympathize greatly with the plight of local people…but remain to be persuaded that the government’s policy is appropriately balanced.” He added, “This is always a complex issue and the devil is in the detail of dealing with it.”

According to Morrison, there are some questions that need to be considered first in this specific human-wildlife conflict: Is the wolf population healthy and appropriate in size for its range? Is the wild prey been over-hunted, and why? Have locals taken appropriate mitigation measures, such as dogs and good fences?

The government says the wolf population has grown in recent years. Reports put the number of wolves between 500 and 700. The Armenian Ministry of Nature Protection further claims that the wolves have become a threat to endangered species.

Some environmentalists disagree. The coordinator for the non-governmental organization EcoAlliance, Silva Adamian, believes those numbers are outdated, and that scientific research on the size and condition of Armenia’s wolf population is needed. “The last survey was conducted more than 10 years ago! We need to learn about the current state of their natural habitat,” she told the Weekly.

According to Adamian, who works at the Zoological Institute, villagers aren’t properly equipped to fend off the wolves. “Instead of financially rewarding hunters, the government should give the money to villagers so that they can afford to fortify their barns, and purchase fences and dogs,” she said.

Who let the wolves in?

Morrison says there may be a variety of reasons why some wolves are targeting livestock: “Sometimes their numbers grow beyond the capacity of their habitat to feed them, or their prey is over-hunted, or there is a particularly harsh winter as there was in Armenia this year, and they roam beyond their protected homelands, and local people react. It happens in Armenia as it does in Montana.”

Recently a lawsuit was launched by Montana conservation groups who wanted to ban wolf hunting and trapping in the state. The suit was rejected by the court in mid-March. Some 500 wolves were killed in recent months in the state according to reports, after wolves were taken off the endangered species list last spring. Wolf hunting is supported by ranchers who fear for the safety of their livestock, and hunters who say big game has declined due to the number of wolves in the area. Montana has a quota of 220 wolves per hunting season. The state’s wolf population was estimated at 653 by the end of 2011, and the state aimed to reduce it to 425 during the latest hunting season. Montana hopes to further shrink that number to 150, which conservationists say is too low to sustain their population.

In Armenia, some environmentalists are certain there is a clear link between wolf attacks on livestock and illegal hunting practices. According to Ruben Khachatrian, the director of the Fund for Wildlife Protection, part of the blame falls on hunters and poachers. “[Because of] the growth of uncontrolled poaching, the illegal killing of mammals that represent food for the wolves, they have become more aggressive, looking for food in villages and attacking horses, cows, and sheep,” he was quoted as saying.

Like Khachatrian, Adamian believes that wolves pose a danger to villagers only when their natural habitats are harmed and they are forced to roam closer to human settlements in search of prey. “The destruction of their natural habitats, deforestation, and mining are contributing to the disruption of the natural food chain,” she said, adding, “When wolves are allowed to hunt in their natural habitat, then there will be no need to carry out these illegal and financially motivated hunts.”

Adamian does not advocate a ban on hunting, but its regulation. She believes there should be a limit on the number of wolves that are hunted per season. “That will help regulate their population,” she says.

According to officials, a similar wolf hunting project was successfully implemented in Karabagh. In turn, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has sanctioned wolf hunts since the beginning of 2009.

The state of the wolves elsewhere

In the beginning of the 20th century in the Northern Rocky Mountains area of the western United States—like in the rest of the country—wolves faced extinction after clashes with humans. They were placed on the endangered species list in 1967, and remained there for decades. In the 1990’s, after it had become apparent that wolves were an integral part of the eco-system, Canadian wolves were brought to the region. Over the past 20 years, the state and federal government has spent over $100 million on wolf restoration programs, according to an Associated Press article. Last year, Congress removed the species from the endangered species list in the Northern Rockies, except for Wyoming.

Like Montana, Idaho too is aiming to reduce its wolf population—from 1,000 to 150—through deadly means, including hunting, trapping, and snaring. Between August 2011 and February 2012, Idaho hunters killed some 322 wolves.

In other countries, such as Poland, wolves are protected. According to two conservation groups—WOLF and the Wolves and Humans Foundation—the Polish government passed a bill banning wolf hunts in 1998. Today, there are around 750 wolves in Poland. Conflicts with humans continue to arise over livestock attacks (although according to one study, 90 percent of wolves’ diet is comprised of wild game). Meanwhile, their wild prey numbers have shrunk due to over-hunting of ungulates (hoofed animals, such as mountain goats) by humans, development, and “forestry activities.” As dictated by Polish law, the state compensates farmers for any losses ensued from wolf attacks. Despite such measures, wolf hunting enjoys support among affected farmers, as well as the 100,000 member Polish Hunting Union that supports the reintroduction of a law reclassifying wolves as game animals.

Although called gray wolves, these canines’ color can vary from as light as white to pitch black. Their packs consist of a mated pair, their offspring of the previous year, their new pups, and sometimes young adopted wolves. The females give birth once a year. Wolves are opportunistic carnivores that prefer ungulates.

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