There Is Such a Thing as Bad Press—Especially If You’re a Wolf

In Spain, where conflicts between predators and livestock are fraught with emotion, no news is often good news for Iberian wolf conservation.

June 08, 2016
An Iberian wolf
Francisco Jesus Ibañez/Flickr

Iberian wolves and Cantabrian brown bears are two of the top predators roaming the mountains of northwestern Spain. Neither population is doing very well. Centuries of hunting have left the bear critically endangered, and the wolf is near threatened. Both animals come into occasional conflict with humans—they eat livestock, and the bears love to dip their paws and snouts into beehives—but a study published on March 14 in PLOS ONE found that Spaniards are throwing way more shade at one species than the other.

Given the feelings about wolves expressed in everything from old fairy tales to bumper stickers in the American West, it should surprise no one that the more intensely loathed of the two species is the Iberian wolf.

But how do you measure loathsomeness? To prove that the bias against wolves was real and not imagined, researchers in Spain and Norway gathered data from the Asturias community, situated in the Cantabrian Mountains. The researchers were able to quantify how many animals and beehives were being destroyed by bears and wolves each year, because the Asturian government compensates livestock owners and apiarists for losses caused by predators. They then measured these damages against other variables such as population statistics, culling quotas (for wolves only), and the number of newspaper articles written about the predators. Once they plugged it all into a model, a rather interesting relationship emerged.

The amount of money the government shelled out to compensate for wolf predation turned out to be five times higher than that of bears. This may be because there are more wolves in the area than bears—though not five times as many, as the numbers would suggest. The study notes that 160 brown bears live in Asturias, and 30 packs of wolves. (Gray wolves, of which Iberian wolves are a subspecies, run in packs of six to ten animals.) But the researchers’ key finding is that when wolves do strike, they get a lot more press than bears—thirty times more.

Now, you might be inclined to think the media is bloodthirsty and fickle and there’s no accounting for what it chooses to harp on. But in Spain this isn’t just a matter of fairness and what animal gets the most clicks. An exponential difference between bear and wolf coverage could have real-world consequences, due in part to how the country’s wolf culling laws are written.

About 160 Cantabrian bears remain in the mountains of northwestern Spain.

When determining how many wolves will be culled each year, Spain’s wildlife managers evaluate three things: overall wolf abundance, how many damages wolves caused in the previous year, and something called the “level of social conflict.” This last one is where things get tricky. There are no official documents in which the Spanish government defines the term social conflict, nor does it provide any guidance on how to measure it. This means wolf culls are based, at least somewhat, on feelings.

And when wolves garner an outsize amount of the ink in newspapers, it may generate a lot of those feelings. The researchers found a correlation between the amount of stories newspapers ran about wolf damage and the number of wolves culled in any given year. In other words, the public and, more important, policymakers may be getting a skewed view of the wolves’ effect on livestock and possibly making ill-informed and subjective decisions about wolf management.

Just look at the numbers. The government pays an average of $777,000 in damages a year for wolf predation on livestock. That may sound like a lot, but the animals eaten represent an average of just 0.69 percent of the total amount of free-ranging livestock in the wolves’ habitat. And in no year out of the eight evaluated by researchers did that number even cross the 1 percent threshold. That means for every sheep, cow, or goat taken down by a wolf, there were on average 143 left prancing in the meadow.

What’s more, the study found that livestock damages were positively correlated to wolf culling intensity—meaning that livestock predation actually went up following years in which the government killed more wolves. Other studies have shown similar culling-predation relationships with American black bearsmountain lions, and whattayaknow, gray wolves.

Why would killing wolves lead to more dead goats, sheep, and cows? No one is really certain, but it could be that culling disrupts the pack’s social structure, leading the animals to fragment into multiple smaller groups that then need to make more kills. Culling might also initiate a stronger fear of humans, which could cause the wolves to abandon kills while there’s still meat on the bone, so to speak. And if they can’t fully utilize an animal that’s already dead, they’ll have to hunt for more sooner rather than later. (A similar behavior has been observed in pumas.)

Whatever is happening up in the Cantabrian Mountains, it’s clear we still have a lot to learn about how best to mitigate conflicts between carnivores and farmers. Because coexisting with endangered animals that eat the same foods we do—whether they are canine or ursine—requires reacting to the next missing goat with science rather than emotion.

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