By Brunellas Pernigotti – Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin Italian reporter
“At a certain point of my existential way, I discovered the tracks of the wolves and, following them, I happened to go along some unknown and unpredictable paths, until, through different phases, I reached the present moment. At the beginning it was a simple and romantic infatuation for these animals, so elusive, fascinating and mysterious, then it became a passion that made me feel the need to defend wolves against the human destructive force; but, even if I’m not an expert, the more I study the wolf’s behavior and habitat, the more I am aware of the realistic problems related to it. Yet, although I don’t have a scientific preparation that supports me, my love for Nature makes me keep on dreaming: I dream of a peaceful and well-balanced coexistence between men and these big predators, based on the due respect both for the ecosystem and for the human work. This is what I was thinking about, while my life-companion was driving me to the Maritime Alps, through woods and little villages that compete for the scarce habitable space with the mountains. I was looking at the numerous peaks, that originate a natural high and thick border between Piedmont and the Mediterranean Sea, and I noticed that they are very rich in vegetation and offer an ideal shelter: that’s why the wolves, going up from the Apennines to the North in the 90s, wolves settled there and put an end to their depopulation caused by persecution and indiscriminate hunting during the past centuries. In winter it snows abundantly because of the mild air coming from the sea that encounters the cold air coming from the north; in summer the mountain pastures are luxuriant, so many shepherds lead their cattle there.
Leaving from the plain of Turin, our crowded and hot city, it took us about two hours to get to Chiusa Pesio, where there is the administrative seat of the Natural Park of Marguareis, which has been recently combined with the Maritime Alps Park to create a single, great organization that is one of the 12 partners of the Life WolfAlps Project [“WOLF IN THE ALPS: IMPLEMENTATION OF COORDINATED WOLF CONSERVATION ACTIONS IN CORE AREAS AND BEYOND” http://www.lifewolfalps.eu/il-progetto-in-breve/%5D. It was a short journey but to me it meant the attainment of a goal after a long way that had started many years ago and during which I had met many people who work with passion and devote their life to the wolves, such as the people of the WolfAlps Project. When we arrived and took off our helmets, we felt the fresh air that was fragrant with the scent of fresh cut hay. Looking at the building, seat of the park, where Erika and Mattia were waiting for us I realized that it was like a mountain hut. In its offices, very different from the ones full of modernity and cement of the cities, there was the scent of wood and of love for Nature: pictures of wild plants and animals hanging on the walls, silence and peace surrounding.
LWA (Life WolfAlps) is a European project that was born in 2013; it’s mission is aimed to the implementation of coordinated actions to conserve and manage the wolves living in the Alps. It is co-financed by European Union, in the field of a more large-scale project devoted to the preservation of natural biodiversity in Europe. Its members are about ten partners, among them there are many organizations that manage the several natural parks situated along the arc of the Alps, from west to east, and, across the border, in Slovenia. They all work together to create strategies aimed, above all, to reduce the conflicts and to make wolves and traditional human activities live together.
Erika and Mattia gave us a friendly welcome and soon we started that kind of open and warm relation that joins people who have common points of view. We sat down at a table and in an informal way we started our conversation. I introduced myself by saying that my questions originated from my curiosity and desire to know better what kind of work there is behind the LWA, that I was interested in knowing the people who work actively on the field, what resources and point of view they have, so that I could tell all these things to the people who live on the other side of the world.
First of all, after the introductions, they wanted to denounce the most important problem about wolves in Italy that is the lack of correct and full information. Sometimes, they said, all the researchers’ careful and scientific work is vanished by a news that media spreads with imprudence. After a while the news turns out to be false, but at that point the damage is done. A classic example is the rumor going about those valleys that wolves have been reintroduced into the Alps by animal-rights supporters. Of course it’s completely false. On this point LWA people who work in “Communication and didactics” are making a very good job.”
And now let’s go to the recorded interview:
Brunella – May I ask you both a short personal introduction?
My name is Mattia Colombo I am a researcher and, as I like to say, a wolf biologist. I work as the coordinator of the wolves monitoring actions carried on by all the operators in charge in the province of Cuneo, such as game wardens, park rangers, corps of forest rangers, etc. Besides, I personally carry out field research. I started as a volunteer in 2001, right here in Valle Pesio, where, since 1999, one of the first three Alpine packs of wolves had come back (about the other 2: one had settled in France, in the Mercantour area, the other in the Alps of the Turin province). Then I wrote my doctoral thesis on wolves with the collaboration of Dott. Marucco. I completed my studies with a master’s degree on the Scandinavian wolves in Sweden.
My name is Erika Chiecchio – I’m a naturalist. I work, above all, in environmental education and didactics. I’m one of the 53 staff members of this organization, where I deal also with tourism, events and web graphic design. As for the didactics and divulgation about wolves, this year I’ve organized with my colleagues many workshops and met about 1500 students of junior secondary and high schools. We always try to provide them with general information, playing and experimenting with them and telling them how and what the field researches are about. We also provide high school students with a scientific and theoretic part. Moreover we read and analyze with them some articles of the main newspapers to find out the fake news and the spoof stories about wolves. On this point next September we’ll organize also a formative workshop for journalists, in order to give them the correct information and prevent them being mistaken, and believing and writing according to the wrong cliché of the “bad wolf”. Of course I’m sure that our didactical activity is to be developed particularly with children: the rising generations can originate a new culture of sustainability and promote a long term and peaceful coexistence between the wolves and the human beings of this area.
Brunella – How does bureaucracy, with its delays and complications concerning the allocation of funds, hamper the Project activities and running programs?
Mattia – The Establishment requires our scientific studies and exact data collections, in one word we have to work with efficiency and accuracy, but sometimes we are not able to do it because we are in need of a continuous and systematic monitoring, which, as a matter of fact, implies some expensive state-of-the-art technologies such as the DNA analysis and researches in laboratory, in office and on the field. All these activities need not only significant funds, but also studies and competences on the newest technologies that we must keep constantly up to date and that LWA only partly implements.
Brunella – ln Italy there is a great alarm because the new “Conservation and management plan of wolf in Italy “, prepared by the Italian Zoological Union, is about to be approved. It would provide for the killing of the 5% of wolves each year, of all hybrids and stray dogs, even those beyond the control of their owners. In these days, the State – Regions Conference is preparing the final version, after which the plan should be fully operative. What do you think about it?
Mattia – As LWA researchers, we are in contact with the Ministry of the Environment but we are not involved in the decisional process. We try to carry out our scientific and technic job in the best possible way, but the final decision will be a political one. At the moment there is a great confusion and nobody is in a position to explain how it will really work. All the national professional associations have been involved in the first draft of this Plan, together with the Italian Zoological Union. This strategic Plan is the result of the awareness that a general regulation of the endangered species management is required in Italy. It is composed of many items and the one about the controlled killing of wolves is just one of them. And we must say that the others are equally important: they provide Regions and every environmental organization with all the needed coordination actions that should be undertaken. However the final document of the Plan is not yet available. In any case it’s important to know that the killings won’t be allowed indiscriminately, but the decision on how and why the killing of some wolves is needed will be a very complex problem, also because the EU laws will ask us for a justification of the killing on scientific basis. I know that in North America there are similar plans. In conclusion, we should also consider that maybe, at a certain moment in the future, wolves could be delisted as endangered species according to the IUCN Red List.
Brunella – It seems to me that things like these are happening also in the Yellowstone Park, where hunters complain about the rising number of wolf packs, which leave them without enough prey to trophy-hunt…
Mattia – Italian hunters complain too and the problem is that we are not able to refute them with scientific data, as in Piedmont we are not able to standardize the monitoring of ungulates. On the contrary, as regards the farmers’ complaints, we took a census of about 98% of the alpine farms in Piedmont, so now we are able to provide them with livestock protection dogs and with the chance to keep a sustainable level of conflict in this area.
Brunella – On the point of the relation with breeders, is it possible a didactic, cultural approach also with them? I mean, is it possible to provide them with the correct information?
Erika – Of course we cannot hope that breeders love wolves, but it’s our job to provide them with the help needed to coexist, especially on long term. But to get it, we need a constant commitment on the regional and national policy part. As far as we are concerned, LWA provides the breeders with the right information. This year we have arranged 10 guided tours to the mountain pastures in order to awaken breeders and tourists to this kind of problems. After those tours we had different answers from the breeders: some of them told us that wolves are not a problem for them, as they use electrified fences and have protection dogs; but others of them still complained about some predations.
Mattia – Of course the return of the wolf in this area is really traumatic for the breeders because they must turn upside down the routine of their firm management. I confess that when I used to go to the mountain pastures to help them to use the new deterrent methods, sometimes I almost felt ashamed of being a wolf biologist, particularly when I saw them crying for the losses and damages they had suffered after a predation. However, in LWA we believe in our project which has also the aim to support their work so that, wolves and working activities can be safeguarded. After all, it depends on us, who do field researches and are involved in the project of wolf conservation, to keep the strong awareness that this is the only practicable way.
Brunella – So, what must we expect from this Management Plan, which now is at a standstill?
Erika – At an official level we can’t say anything yet.
Mattia – On my opinion we need in any case an action plan that gives us rules to follow with strong and really scientific grounds. Personally I trust in the professionals who are following at a scientific level the procedure of this Plan, as they are researchers with also a serious past experience in law-making in the European Union. On the other hand, I’m also convinced that the final decisions will be political, so probably they will disappoint everyone, because they will result from the attempt to make the opposite hunters’ and animal-supporters’ demands meet on one and only point. I hope that all the people involved, politicians included, gather in-depth information because the risk is that there won’t be the technical grounding to come to the final decisions. They must read the scientific reports, they must attend the technical meetings, and they must study and consult with specialists and scientists. For instance, they don’t have enough consideration for the fact that we, LWA researchers, together with our French colleagues, are studying one of the three most important populations of wolves in Europe (the other 2 are the German and the Swedish ones). Politicians must listen to the researchers in order to make mindful choices, because they too have to take on their responsibilities.
Brunella – Does this Management Plan consider also the poaching and the illegal killing by traps and poison baits?
Erika – Yes, of course. Should anthropic killings of wolves be found, the poachers are punished, but it is also necessary to deduct the number of victims from the possible annual amount of “controlled” killings provided for by the Plan. Therefore, as long as the findings of illegally killed wolves are so many, the “controlled” killings provided for by the Plan can’t be applied.
Brunella – An Italian serious wolf management plan should provide also for the problem of crossbreeds, I think.
Mattia – Of course! How should we manage them from a legal point of view? They are not yet here in Piedmont: we know it thanks to the DNA tests made by the Institute ISPRA in Bologna, where we send the traces we find and pick up. But in Tuscany and in general in the Apennines they are a serious problem. First of all it’s very difficult to distinguish a wolf from a crossbreed and sometimes it’s possible only by means of a DNA test, then at a legal level, the dogs or wolves management is very different.
Brunella – So, the hybrids don’t constitute only a risk of losing the wolf genetic inheritance, but they are also a problem for the wolf management! For instance, what about a predation that is reported as from wolves and then it is proved it was from hybrids? …
Mattia – In general there is a compensation for damages caused by “Canids”, that is by dogs and by wolves, without distinction. But in the past years a similar event happened in an Italian Region that had a protocol providing a compensation for damages caused only by wolves, so it was difficult for the breeder to get a compensation.
Brunella – In this connection, what are the differences of the wolf management in the Alps and in the Apennines?
Mattia – First of all, we must say that we live and work in the Alps, where the wolves have gradually settled again and we have had the time to get organized. So, the first difference is that in Piedmont, with the LWA Project, we are trying to have a coordination at a regional and interregional level, whilst in the Apennines the management is more complex and diversified, depending on the areas. Then in the Alps, in general, there is more snow, so in winter it’s easier to track the wolves. Other differences are the orography and the possibility, at an institutional level, to raise funds and resources. The Apennines are certainly more extended and obviously there is a different approach. Probably in the National Park of Abruzzi and in the Majella area there is a little more tolerance, but generally, even if in the Apennines the wolves never extinguished completely, the breeders of those territories are not well disposed to them. For instance in Tuscany some wolves were recently found killed and with their heads cut: these are real acts of retaliation.
Brunella – Well, let’s approach the wolves from a more cultural and traditional point of view, now. How are they regarded around here?
Erika – My job is also to show the wolves tracks to the children, to explain them how the food chain works and why they have come back to these valleys. We often meet with different responses. The children that come from the city have no prejudices: they are like white sheets of paper on which it’s possible to write. So when we tell them the life in a pack, they compare it to the life in their family, and when we explain the dispersal of the young wolves, or when we reappraise with them the Little Red Riding Hood tale, we immediately realize that we have a strong hold over them and meet with positive responses. Whilst, those who come from these valleys are not so tolerant. Of course during our meetings we never try to convince them to love the wolves, but only to let them understand that the wolves have come back in a natural way, deflating the false news and rumors that say that wolves have been reintroduced by men. Then we explain that wolves are very useful big predators of wild animals and that they keep wild herds in good health by killing only the old or weak or suffering preys. Right then, when the children understand that the wolf presence is important and that the wolves will never invade this area in hundreds, we are rewarded with positive feedback that we can verify when we receive from their schools the drawings and the stories invented by the children after our meetings. I remember also a particular event we organized with the students of the Agricultural Institute, whom we had a different approach with. We wanted to speak with them not about wolves, but about the breeders’ problems and the possible deterrent methods to be used. We brought also the antivenin dogs and showed them some newspaper articles with spoof stories. We had a very positive feedback. Precisely, at the beginning of our meeting, we had given out to each of them a first card with the writing: “On my opinion the wolf is…” that they had completed with negative comments. But when we gave out the same cards again, at the end of the meeting and after our explanations, the comments had changed and become positive. This made us understand that the problem is always a lack of correct information.
Brunella – According to what is said in the USA award winning documentary film: “Medicine of the Wolf”, the wolves are the medicine that can save mankind, as they act like men, are sympathetic and can feel strong emotions. What do you think the wolves can teach us?
Erika –The children show interest when they learn how the social life in a pack is important: the mutual assistance, the parental care, the territoriality. The children compare the wolves to themselves and often they end up by talking about bullying, as in Italian pack and gang are the same word. I never thought that talking with children about wolves could have social and relational implications. We often examine with them the negative behaviors of bullies in a gang/pack in order to compare them with the positive examples of loyalty and solidarity represented by the wolves in their pack. Moreover, our society is full of negative words linked to the wolves. For instance many journalists are used to mention the “bad wolf” symbolism when they talk about crime news. However, there is now a growing tendency to rediscover the wolves and their importance and we are trying to support it by means of our educational activities, especially addressed to the new generations.
Mattia – The wolves taught me particularly to hold out, to never give up! They are incredibly able to survive despite the obstacles and the real difficulties posed by nature and men. Besides I consider them like a bridge that connects us to our mountains: to me the wolf is the symbol of the wild life that doesn’t drive humans away from here, but that makes me understand more deeply these places and that attracts me to live here. The wolves fascinate me but not for some idealistic and sentimental reasons: I’m very realistic and I know that they can be violent and aggressive, for instance when they kill a foreign wolf that comes in their territory. It’s natural. But, no matter how we try to understand them, they remain elusive and inaccessible: even though in my life I’ve been tracking them for hundreds of kilometers, I’ve met them only about fifteen times.
Brunella – Do you have some particular memories?
Mattia – Yes, a lot. For instance, when they hadn’t noticed that I was hiding in a bush: I heard a little noise, I turned and I saw them; they were three, not very far from me; or when they answered for the first time to my wolf howling. But it’s important to say that I love the wolves not only when I meet them, but also when I do my daily job for them: the field research I do and the relations I establish with the people of these mountains.
Brunella – The last question: what kind of non-lethal deterrents are used around this area? Do they work?
Mattia – The use of deterrents brings the problem of inurement. My job is also to test every prevention method. Here the breeders use many of them: the electrified fence, the livestock protection dogs, the fladry fencing, the vocal dissuaders. But the wolves are very clever and after a while they understand that these things are not dangerous, so they don’t fear them anymore and we have to convince the breeders to change method. Moreover every valley or area has local and orographic differences, so, even if we have proved the efficacy of one method in one place, we can’t say that we’ll be able to take it to another place and guarantee the same success: everything is to be adapted again, according to the geography and the habits of the breeders.
All we can say is that we have a valuable experience of 15 years of working and researching: this is a store of knowledge that can be useful to find the right strategies and to contribute to the pacific coexistence between men and wolves in our mountains.
“With these last words, my interview ended. I thanked and said goodbye to my friends. On my way back, while I was thinking to our conversation, I realized that the respect for the creatures that live in these places can originate only from the deep scientific knowledge of the environment around us. I am sure that, from the model activities that LWA is carrying on by informing and popularizing, new interests and passions will be born in the future generations, so that they will improve the ancient relation between humans and big predators. As Jim Brandenburg says in Medicine of the Wolf, it was the wolf that about 14.000 years ago, decided to get closer to men and to let them domesticate it. Now it’s the man that must take the following step and give the wolf the chance to survive, as it is one of the key animals for the ecosystem. The wolf must be able to live in its habitat, and men must coexist with wolves in a sustainable way, as men too are guests, not owners of the natural environment! If humans do not learn to understand that the wolves, like all predators at the top of the food chain, represent our salvation, there won’t be a future for mankind.”
Featured image: “Lupo Ormea_ Centro Faunistico Uomini e Lupi_ photo credit Fulvio Beltrando”
Brunella has joined Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin’s blog and will be writing about the wolves in Italy for our Italian and Europian readers. Watch for the Italian language version of this interview on WODCW -Brunella Pernigotti’s blog out on Monday September 12, 2016.