Wolf population surpasses ‘viability’ level in France, reigniting row over its protected status
France’s once-extinct wolf population has surpassed the 500 mark, making it “demographically viable” in a milestone hailed by conservationists but which farmers warn could see an exponential rise in attacks on their livestock.
European grey wolves were wiped out in France in the 1930s but in 1992, an alpha mating pair crossed the border from Italy. Since then, Canis lupus has spread throughout the Alps, across the Rhône valley into the Massif Central and up the eastern border of France to the Jura and Vosges mountains.
By 2016, it had reached the sparsely populated plains of eastern France, and there were even unconfirmed sightings in the Paris area.
But in the past six months, its reach has rocketed further from 74 to 85 “zones of permanent presence” with 72 packs of at least three individuals with the capacity to reproduce, according to France’s national office of hunting and wildlife, ONCFS.
The number of individuals has gone from 430 last winter to above 500, which “corresponds to the first level of demographic viability,” said ONCFS, adding that the figure was a target the government hoped to reach by 2023 in a five-year “wolf plan” launched early this year.
The plan comprises a clause saying management of the population would be reviewed if that number were reached. In October, the government increased the number of wolves authorised to be culled from 43 to 51 individuals.
Demographic viability is the level at which the wolf population is considered no longer at risk of extinction over a 100-year period. But one report for the ONCFS last year suggested that between 2,500 and 5,000 individuals was the “necessary minimum” to ensure the wolves’ survival in France.
“We can’t say that with 500 we’ve reached a sufficiently reassuring figure, we remain prudent,” environmental expert Yvon Le Maho told AFP. Pro-wolf group Ferus said it remained “vigilant”.
“This figure remains low for a species whose return started 30 years ago,” it said. However, many farmers say the rise a direct threat to their pastoral way of life, pointing out that the number of attacks has risen from 1,400 in 2,000 to 12,000 last year among 7.2 million sheep and goats nationwide.
This December, sheep rearers from around France brought their flocks to Paris’ Place de la République to raise awareness over the number of deaths among their livestock “Attacks: stop the disdain, save the farmers,” read a banner.
A protected species under the Berne convention and European law, the wolf can no longer be hunted or poisoned. Yet culls can exceptionally take place when all other methods fail.
But many farmers are calling for the wolf to lose its “strictly protected” status.
One farmer, Martine Fiolet, said the only answer was “the eradication of the wolf near sheep”.
“The wolf must regain its former status of strictly harmful. The wolf isn’t the one under threat, we are.”