On April 20th to 23rd, the Iberian Wolf Center of Castilla and León (Centro del Lobo Ibérico de Castilla y León), their local government, the University of León, and various other entities hosted an international wolf conference with the title “Management and Conservation of the Wolf in Europe and North America: An Unresolved Conflict”.
The wolf center is in Robledo, Spain, near Zamora. The town itself is home to about 43 people and sits just about 6 kilometers from the border of Portugal in Northwestern Spain, making it a great place for a center that focuses on wolves endemic to both countries. It opened in 2015 and currently houses 3 packs of Iberian wolves, although this number fluctuates (just like at the California Wolf Center).
I heard about the conference when we went to visit the wolf center back in December. Diego had been wanting to take me there because of my interest in wolves, and its proximity to his home town. It’s situated in a beautiful foresty area, with small rivers and plenty of trees. Their general layout is very similar to the California Wolf Center, consisting of a main education building and then various large, natural looking wolf habitats. When we went to visit in December, we took a short tour and then I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk to their veterinarian. We discussed how we manage our wolves and she brought up the conference. I decided I had to go! Conferences are a great opportunity to learn, share experiences, and network with other professionals.
Diego was kind enough to drive me out to his town and provide a place for me to stay. I could have stayed in a hostal closer to the wolf center, but this way I saved money and got to eat dinners with Diego. This did mean that I had an almost hour commute to get to and from the wolf center, including an extremely early morning on Saturday and driving in the dark with deer running across the road. This was a great time to realize that the headlights on our car are extremely dim–thankfully the brights work!
So Thursday we started in the afternoon with presentations and a tour of the wolf center. This time of the year is absolutely gorgeous there, as the flowers are blooming, the trees are getting green, and the weather isn’t too hot or cold. We didn’t have any rain while I was there either. One thing I loved about the wolf center is that it has nature trails that make you feel like you’re really in a forest and connected with nature.
They also have a cool setup to see the wolves. Considering that wolves are generally skiddish around humans, they built lookout towers for visitors to go into to view the wolves. There are two levels of openings in the walls so that people can look at the wolves without being seen much. This wolf center socializes their wolves that are born there and/or are unreleasable into the wild. On the flip side, if they receive a wolf that is able to be rehabilitated and released, they do not socialize that wolf.
The presentations varied from reports on wolf damage to livestock to stories about rehabilitating wolves affected by forest fires to differences in wolf management between different countries, to coexistence techniques (ways to prevent wolves from depredating on livestock). The main star of the conference was David Mech (and one of his current employees, Shannon Barber-Meyer, who talked about Mexican wolf recovery). Dr. Mech focused on wolf recovery in the Northeast and Northwest United States. He also had some amazing stories from when he studied wolves in the North Pole. This was my first time meeting Mech, which was an honor. For those who aren’t familiar with him, he is one of the most published scientists in the topic of wolf biology, ecology, and recovery. He’s a very nice, down to earth, guy who never says no to a photo op!
On Friday, we had a day full of presentations, poster sessions, and round table discussions. Things I realized:
- This conference wasn’t an echo room full of just wolf biologists and enthusiasts. The event brought together the biologists, students, farmers, ranchers, hunters, veterinarians, zookeepers, politicians, and locals.
- The discussions were lively. I didn’t have a single unanswered question, as others thought of them first and even brought up things I would have never thought of. There were also many dissenting opinions from both sides of the “fence,” direct complaints, and emotional rants. There were a few tense moments.
- There are many other countries with wolves, and of them, Italy, Portugal, USA, Spain, Croatia, Bulgaria, France, and Mexico were represented at the conference.
- I wasn’t the only American, but I was the only one from the California Wolf Center, so I represented it proudly (and wore CWC shirts every day).
- The official languages of the conference were Spanish and English, although awkwardly a few presenters did not speak either. Thankfully, one of the translators spoke Portuguese, but when one presenter started speaking in Italian, the entire conference looked around in confusion (except for the group that spoke Italian).
Many students attended the conference and I got to meet a bunch of them from Spain and Italy. We chatted during lunch, which was soo Spanish by the way (empanadas, sandwiches with chorizo, salchichón, tortilla, and wine!). They were interested in my background and how to start working with wolves. It gave me good perspective, as I was in a similar position not too long ago.
On Saturday, we started at 6 am to try to see Iberian wolves in the wild. The conference was in an area known to have wolves, so our chances were decent, although I didn’t get my hopes up. Seeing wolves in the wild is very difficult, as they avoid being near humans. The conference had a ton of attendees (around 200 people), so we split into 6 groups and went to different areas to attempt to see wolves. My group included David Mech, which was really cool, but we didn’t have much luck. We saw grazing deer, but no wolves. It was still a beautiful visit, and I had a fun talk with one of the government employees that helps to manage the land and wildlife in the area. When I told him that my boyfriend is from a local town, he asked me his name and then when I told him, he said “oh, yeah, I knew his grandpa! He would frequent this area back in the day with his sheep”. Wow, small town things!
Stories from the field
David Mech had some great stories from when he was working in the field, studying wolves in the wild. From the behind the scenes of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, to techniques used to find wolves, to watching wolves hunt, to the amazing wolves in the north pole. Those particular wolves don’t have a fear of humans since they haven’t been exposed to them much. They are completely white, the perfect camoflauge to living in a snowy environment. Mech found where a local pack was denning and watched a litter of pups grow up as he studied how they hunted and how far they traveled. I learned that wolves are very much opportunists, eating what is available. Someone asked him if the pups ever chose to interact with him. He said he avoided it, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, but one pup did untie his shoelaces once (cue the “awwww”).
The language barrier
I tried to meet as many new people as possible, and was very thankful that I could communicate in Spanish and English. Although there were translators for the presentations, that didn’t extend to individual conversations. So anyone who wanted to meet someone that didn’t speak their language was out of luck. I guess this is one of the challenges of an international conference.
There was one point where I was completely caught off guard. I didn’t get any headphones for translations since it was just English and Spanish, but then all of a sudden one of the presenters started speaking in Portuguese, so I completely missed that presentation.
Many different countries, many similar problems
Despite the challenges, having an international conference is extremely helpful and worthwhile, especially when you’re discussing solutions to a conflict that everyone shares. It was quite amazing to see how wolves affect so many countries in such similar ways. You would think that with such different cultures, the problems would be different. But although there are some differences, there are many more similarities. For example, the age old problem of wolves and livestock. Almost every country spoke of this problem (some countries only have wolves in high mountain areas without livestock or with a lower concentration of livestock). Also, many countries spoke about the appearance of poached wolves hanging from signs (at times, just their head).
One recurring theme of the conference was the idea of coexistence between all parties, and how the radicalization of the two “sides” is not helping anybody. I really like this particular quote shared by one of the government workers for Castilla y León: “los planteamientos extremos de un sector, conducen al radicalismo de los otros” (the extreme approaches of one sector drive the others to radicalism). Let’s be honest here: no one who is passionate about an idea wants to be moderate. It’s really hard to get what you want when it’s the complete opposite of what someone else wants. But this conference has really showed me that the only way to reach an accord is to come closer to where the other person stands. Sometimes, you have to meet in the middle to move forward. And this is a lesson that both sides need to learn.
Do we need to allow lethal control or legal hunting of wolves?
An idea that most biologists and wolf enthusiasts don’t like to talk about is the idea of lethal control. This is when some wolves are killed to control the population. Some people strongly believe that top predators, since they don’t have predators, need to be kept in check by humans. But from the perspective of biology, the population of predators is itself kept in check by the population of available prey and other resources. However, at the same time we have to realize and accept that because of the human population and colonization, the maximum biologically sustainable population of wolves is different from the maximum socially acceptable population of wolves. Obviously, this is a big point of contention and definitely debatable. But we have to admit that even ugly facts are facts. I’ll be the first to admit that I generally like animals more than people, but that’s an unpopular opinion! As of this point in time, most governments answer the question with a “yes,” if the wolf population has reached a “healthy” or sustainable number (something which is also debatable).
The importance of education
One of the presenters talked about their project called LIFE COEX, which provides coexistence techniques to ranchers in many European countries. They also provide workshops for ranchers on how to use the techniques and about wolf biology. Additionally, they go to schools and educate children about wolves and ecology. The idea is to lessen the fear of wolves and help people to understand their importance in the wild. Interestingly, they also focus on other large carnivores like bears, as they are also making a comeback in Europe.
This program really impressed me, and reminded me of the hard work that the California Wolf Center is doing too. I enjoyed hearing their success stories and how interested kids are in learning about wolves. One of the educators from the Iberian wolf center also told us about how when kids come to visit, they often enter with a fear of the wolf and leave saying that it’s their favorite animal. I’ve seen this happen before too, and it’s really rewarding to know that your effort to teach the importance of the wolf is paying off. The more we know about wolves, the better we will be at conserving them and coexisting with them.
Are we out of touch?
A common complaint made by ranchers and hunters is that many wolf activists are city folk who know nothing about living in the country and don’t appreciate the difference of the way of life, or the challenges they face. One thing that was discussed was the idea of free roaming livestock. That makes protecting them from wolves a big challenge (forget about fences!). Some say, well, just have the pastor or rancher go with the livestock as they roam (human presence lowers the chance of a wolf depredation greatly). This is a huge challenge, however, for those who have their livestock roaming 24/7. So why not just have the pastors work like they used to? One presenter brought up a great point: how can we expect them to work 24 hours a day like they used to? Noawadays, workers have more rights, more vacation time, a normal work schedule, etc. These advances happened for a good reason, so we will have to find a better solution than just going back to the way it was. Range riders are one solution to this problem, and I’m so glad I got to meet one at the conference!
Can we have it all?
It was great to hear how the population of wolves in Spain and Portugal has grown so much and reached goal numbers in many places. David Mech also talked about the success in the US following the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. Shannon Barber-Meyer spoke of the slow yet increasing success of Mexican gray wolves in the southwest, although the wild population in Mexico faces even more challenges. This includes sharing land with many more private land owners and areas where the illegal drug trade is active, making radio collaring wolves impossible because of the necessity of flying overhead and the risk of being shot (yeah, she had some incredibly interesting stories!).
So, can we have a healthy population of wolves, free roaming livestock, no wolf-livestock interactions or deaths, no lethal control, and a happy society? I think we can have this situation if we are able to accept that there will be some livestock depredations where wolves roam (although we can work hard to keep that number as low as possible), and we may never get wolf populations back to their original numbers because of a lower availability of habitat. I am still optimistic, though. There are many ranchers who are open to the idea of sharing the landscape with wolves, with some help. They want coexistence techniques that work. They want timely and fair compensation for livestock loss. And most of all, they want to be heard (the California Wolf Center is working hard in this area in California, Oregon, New Mexico and Arizona).
On Saturday, the conference hosted local ranchers and animal breeders for an exposition on coexistence techniques. There were Spanish Mastiffs (Mastín Español), donkeys, herding dogs, and electric fence examples. I actually got to meet a range rider at the conference (an American who works in Montana). Range riders are people who go on horseback with roaming livestock to prevent wolf depredation and also to generally guide and protect livestock.
Before the conference ended on Sunday, they had a “gala” lunch at a local restaurant. We all met up to eat and exchange some final thoughts. I took the opportunity to meet a few more people (including a pastor, who wanted to exchange info!) and get my photo with David Mech!
The conference was great. I’m really glad I found out about it and was able to attend. Conferences like this allow us to learn from others and improve our practices. We’re in a time of many voices and opinions–and every once in a while it’s important to listen.