December 2021 / January 2022
The coexistence between the wolf and humans in the Macizo Central Ourensano (Spain) and surrounding areas: conflict and conservation
In Galicia, the wolf is not included in the Catálogo Gallego de Especies Amenazadas y en Peligro de Extinción, but it does require «special attention», as recognized in the Plan de Gestión del lobo ibérico en Galicia (Management Plan for the Iberian wolf in Galicia) of 2008. However, this does not exempt it from being a hunting species in that territory, since the administration justifies the authorisation of hunts due to the number of specimens and the damage caused to the livestock. Therefore, it is inevitable to mention the wolf-ranchers conflict when talking about the wolf. In recent years, the ranchers from the Macizo Central Ourensano (MCO) —an area where wolves and humans have cohabited for decades— complain about the increased number of wolves and their presence anywhere, and they ask to control the wolf population. This is not true, because I have been controlling the evolution of several breeding groups for more than 25 years and the studies that I have done indicate that the number of wolf packs remains stable or, on occasions, some pack has disappeared due to the persecution of hunters and the use of poisoned baits. On the other hand, neither the carrying capacity of the environment nor the availability of space would allow such an exaggerated increase pointed out by ranchers, since wolves are territorial animals and each group occupies and defends a territory.
The Os Montes do Invernadeiro Natural Park (MINP) is located in the heart of the MCO and is a multiple-prey ecosystem (where different species of ungulates coexist and they are potential preys of the wolf). This natural park hosts abundant populations of wild ungulates, such as roe deer, wild boar and red deer, being the first two species the base of the canid diet. In addition, it should be noted that I have hardly observed livestock predation. In some neighboring villages of the park there is barely livestock and the little that remains is always accompanied by a shepherd, so there have been no attacks for a long time. Locals are often heard saying that wild boars have greatly increased their populations due to the low number of wolves. However, this perception contrasts with that from other areas of the MCO, such as A Serra de San Mamede, where livestock is in extensive regime and attacks are more frequent.
In many areas of the MCO and surrounding areas wolves are illegally hunted during wild boar hunts, poisoned with bait and caught with snares. In many cases, this persecution means that the dominant individuals of the group, which are the reproductive ones, are eliminated. This causes an imbalance in the structure of the pack and the wolves opt for prey easier to be hunted like domestic animals, causing damage mainly to cattle in extensive regime.
The key to wolf conservation in the MCO and other areas may be to encourage traditional livestock, which allows ranchers and wolves to live in harmony. You can even hear some local shepherds saying that it is a joy for them to eventually see the canid when they go out to the mountain with their cattle and assume that the wolf occasionally preys on some cattle head. When I was a child, locals often left the old sheep on the mountain to be consumed by the wolf. Another aspect that is important to consider —according to the Galician naturalist Felipe Bárcena— is to keep autochthonous cattle breeds. He could observe how in the MINP there were Caldelana cattle breed and wolf attacks on calves were never recorded. Another Caldelana cow farm near Cabeza de Manzaneda was not attacked either. It has also been found that cows of Cachena breed are not attacked by the wolf. Other naturalists like Rivero mentioned that it would be beneficial for ranchers and wolves to apply tax exemptions to livestock farms and an own brand for meat from livestock in wolf zones, provided that the owner takes the minimum precautions such as stabling the livestock at night and using protection dogs during the day.
Finally, it should be noted that the density of wolves in the MCO and surrounding areas is higher than in other areas of the province of Ourense and many areas in the rest of Galicia. However, the threats of direct anthropic origin (illegal persecution, poison…) as well as indirect (wind farms, roads, forest fires…) may endanger the existence of stable breeding groups and even the presence of this species in certain areas. This undoubtedly affects not only wolf conservation, but also the entire ecosystem, where humans are integrated.
Isabel Barja Núñez is an Associate Professor in Zoology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain), where she leads different lines of research (behavior and eco-ethophysiology) in vertebrates. From 1997 to present, she has studied wolf populations in the Macizo Central Ourensano, Sierra de la Culebra (Zamora) and Sierra de Guadarrama (Madrid), evaluating aspects such as their trophic ecology, chemical communication and physiological stress responses to anthropic and behavioral factors. On this subject, more information is available in the paper by the author Barja I. (2009). Prey and prey-age preference by the Iberian wolf Canis lupus signatus in a multiple-prey ecosystem. Wildlife Biology 15(2): 147-154. DOI: 10.2981/07-096. Also of interest, the documentary Entre pastores y lobos, filmed in the Macizo Central Ourensano and directed by Manuel Pedrosa Sánchez. The purpose of the documentary is to show information of interest to all audiences about the conservation of the wolf and the coexistence with traditional grazing.