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In the Tracks of Wolves

Dan Milner  /  April 17, 2023  /  11 Min Read  /  Mountain Biking

Searching for Europe’s most infamous predator in the Italian Alps

Italy’s Aosta Valley is a land of snow-covered peaks and sweeping alpine pastures, terrain that makes for both excellent mountain biking and wolf habitat. Ludo May and Manon Carpenter focus on the former while descending a craggy ridgeline trail off Punta Leysser.

Before me, a life-size stag battles three baying wolves. Its mouth foams, its eyes wide in either terror or sorrowful resignation at its impending demise. Positioned to the side of the track we’re climbing towards the Mont Fallère refuge in Italy’s Aosta Valley, the sculpture seems part celebration of the natural order and part warning that we are in the domain of Europe’s most infamous predator: the grey wolf, Canis Lupus.

Francois “Siro” Vierin, the refuge’s proprietor, laughs when I tell him we are there to “track” wolves. An accomplished artist and former professional XC skier, Siro is responsible for the life-sized carving of assorted local fauna that populate the approach to the refuge. He tells me that, during his 12 years in the area, he has only seen a wolf once. That’s not a surprise; sightings are rare, given a wolf pack’s territory covers 250-square kilometers and the animal’s understandable preference for avoiding human contact. But they are here, in abundance.

In the Tracks of Wolves

A life-sized wooden wolf howls silently outside Mont Fallère refuge, one of a menagerie of such sculptures carved by the refuge’s proprietor, Francois “Siro” Vierin. Despite being within the territory of a confirmed pack, Siro has only seen one real wolf during his past 12 years in the Mont Fallère area. Ludo May hopes for better luck as he sets off from the refuge in search of Canis Lupus, Europe’s most infamous predator.

Until recently, that was not the case. The grey wolf has clashed with humans across Europe for centuries, the villain of folklore and suspicion: a ruthless, savage beast to be persecuted and disposed of.

Which is exactly what happened.

Rather than being revered as the highly intelligent, resourceful animal it is, by the start of the 19th century wolves had been shot, poisoned and trapped out of existence across the entire 1,200-kilometer swathe of the European Alps. By the 1970s, less than 100 wild wolves remained in the whole of Italy, clinging to survival in only the most remote, mountainous areas.

But in the wake of new government protections in the late 1970s, Eurasian wolf populations began to rebound and slowly repopulate the Italian, French, Swiss and Austrian Alps. Today more than 257 wolves inhabit the Italian Alps, spread between 51 separate packs. The Aosta Valley, an area of tumbling, glaciated peaks, dense larch forests and alpine pastures just southeast of the busy tourism hub of Mont Blanc, is home to nine of the Italian packs. One lays claim to an area including Mont Fallère and its namesake refuge.

But not all see this as a conservation success story. As wolves returned to high-mountain pastures, where prey is most abundant, they’ve come into conflict with the area’s traditional sheep herders and farmers. It’s sparked a debate about coexistence; whether there is space for both our current farming practices and land use, and the long-ranging carnivores we’ve spent the past 40 years trying to protect.

In the Tracks of Wolves

Manon Carpenter and Ludo May cruise through mellower mountain pastures on their way back to the Mont Fallère refuge.

It’s this debate that brought Manon Carpenter, Ludo May and I to the Mont Fallère refuge, where we will spend the next three days riding from Siro’s sprawling wooden chalet on trails often trodden by wolves.

It’s 7 a.m. when we reach the top the 2,771-meter Punta Leysser and drop our bikes from our shoulders. We’ve already been hiking for over an hour; early morning is one of the best times for wildlife spotting, and in another hour we’ll be too engrossed in the demands of technical trail riding to spot signs of wolves. So, we delve into our packs for breakfast sandwiches and binoculars with equal excitement and start scanning the cascading hillsides around us.

In the Tracks of Wolves

After reaching the summit of the 2,771-meter Punta Leysser at 7 a.m., Ludo May and Manon Carpenter settle in for some alpine breakfast and early morning wildlife spotting. They’ll need the energy for the descent off the peak, which is technical enough to demand a rider’s full attention.

There’s plenty to see. A fox scampers across the rocks, sniffing for marmots. A golden eagle soars overhead, ascending our hour-long, 390-meter hike-a-bike in mere seconds. We zoom our lenses in on a herd of unfathomably sure-footed domestic goats clambering up a cliff face, before picking out a lone chamois idling along the trail below us, seemingly without a care in the world.

In the Tracks of Wolves

Dried poop never looked so good. Ludo May stands over a pile of wolf scat high in the Italian alpine, likely left by the pack who roams the area around the Mont Fallère refuge. Though wolf sightings in the Aosta Valley are rare, traces of the area’s nine resident packs are easier to find—if you know what to look for.

Two weeks earlier, some mountain bikers stumbled across a pair of wolves polishing off a marmot right where we’re now sitting. As is typical, it was the wolves that retreated in that encounter. Despite their fearsome reputation, in the 18 years between 2002 and 2020, only 26 fatal wolf attacks on humans were documented worldwide—the closest to Europe occurring in Turkey. Most involved rabid wolves.

While the Aosta Valley has seen no attacks on humans, the same can’t be said about livestock.

“There were four calves killed just north of here last week,” a cattle herder told us on our initial climb to Siro’s refuge. The herdsman was leading a mixed herd of dairy and traditional prize-fighting cows towards a shed to escape the midday sun, and they ambled lazily across verdant, tumbling hillsides, cropped short by a century or more of grazing.

In the Tracks of Wolves

“Alpage” is French for “mountain pasture”, and the rolling green expanses are ideal for grazing sheep, goats and cows through the summer months. The bucolic terrain and plentiful livestock also make an ideal hunting ground for wolves, especially when hardier native prey like the chamois now frequent the safer, steeper areas. Manon Carpenter and Ludo May curl through the high-alpine greenery on their descent from Punta Leysser.

As far as raising cows go, this couldn’t be farther from the faceless industrialism of factory farming, yet both are existentially fueled by the same dietary choices and have their own impacts on the natural world—be it deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions or the fate of apex predators like the wolf.

In the Alps, it means sheep and cows now hold court over a landscape where wolves (and likely bears) once had held free reign. The only zones untouched farming’s tendrils are the highest, rockiest, most inaccessible outcrops. By way of their geology or meteorology, such realms have become the domain of hikers, trail-runners, mountain bikers and one of a wolf’s favorite pretty: chamois. These goat-like bovids know how hard it is to hunt in such terrain. Livestock can be more easily stalked.

In 2020, there were 48 alleged wolf attacks on livestock in the Aosta Valley, involving 77 sheep, 17 goats, 24 cattle and one horse. However, upon further analysis, only 28 of these attacks were proven to have been the work of wolves. Seven were domestic dogs—an animal that, despite its best-friend demeanor, has a significant impact on alpine wildlife.

Yet despite the low rate per livestock grazing area, the attacks still fuel anti-wolf sentiment. Just over the border, in nearby French Haute Savoie, angry alpine farmers dumped the body of a cow “killed by a canid” in the street outside the offices of the regional prefecture to protest protection for wolves. Their anger rages despite government compensation for lost livestock, which covers 90 percent of the lost animal’s value, and grants for preemptive protection measures.

There are ways to deter wolf attacks. Farmers can erect netting to corral flocks at night, bring in trained guard dogs or even employ a permanent shepherd. But such efforts are time-consuming and costly and add even more difficulties to the already long list faced by alpine herders. Fierce debate around levels of coexistence has ultimately led to the wolf becoming a symbol for political divisions, particularly between urban and rural populations.

Christian Chioso is well-versed in the challenge of managing conflicts between wolves and herders, particularly the political and economic fallout. As an environmental scientist and wildlife technician for the Aosta Valley region, he works closely with the Forestry Corps—the body responsible for Italy’s wildlife protection and management—as well serving as the area coordinator for the LIFE WolfAlps EU project. Since 2013, the international group has mapped the wolf’s resurgence across Italy, France, Austria and Slovenia, coordinating cross-border studies of an animal that, as you’d guess, doesn’t recognize our international border constructs.

In the Tracks of Wolves

Environmental scientist and wildlife technician Christian Chioso shows Ludo May a map of wolf activity in the Aosta region. As area coordinator for the LIFE WolfAlps EU project, Christian helps track the wolf’s resurgence, manage conflict between wolves and humans and provide local herders with tools and assistance related to wolves. “There is enough land for us to co-exist,” he says, “but it relies on human willingness to do so.”

“It is about conservation, but the principal object of this project is the co-existence of man and wolves,” he explains. “As top predator, the wolf is very important for biodiversity and better health for the environment, but it’s clear that the wolf’s presence is complicated when it comes to human activity.”

I ask him about potentially containing the wolf’s range in protected zones of some sort, and he tells me that, while it may be possible in vast preserves like Yellowstone National Park in the US, it’s not an option in the Alps. Wolf populations are typically limited by the availability of food—especially hoofed animals such as deer, the populations of which have expanded significantly following increased protection of forests.

“There is enough land for us to co-exist,” he says, “but it relies on human willingness to do so.”

To overcome this hurdle, LIFE WolfAlps EU established Wolf Intervention and Protection Units (WIPUs). These teams of specialists provide herders with tools and assistance related to wolves, and over the last two years have visited farmers in the Aosta Valley over 70 times to explain and demonstrate how to install livestock protection measures and how to apply for grants to pay for them. Such education reduces human-wolf conflict, and so indirectly improves the lot of the wolf, but Christian insists the visits play a more important role.

In the Tracks of Wolves

A single wolf pack’s territory can span 250-square kilometers, and they are (understandably) very good at avoiding humans. Even so, the elusive predator does occasionally cross paths with humans; this photo, as displayed by Ludo May on the top of Punta Leysser, was taken on the same spot just a few weeks earlier.

“Our biggest challenge is actually to try to explain what the wolf is,” he says. “All the breeders [herders] that have had contact with the WIPU teams have changed their vision of the wolf. The wolf is still not always seen as a good thing, but people’s minds are changing little by little to better understand the wolf, and, most importantly, about the possibility to co-exist with it.”

Sporting vivid Rudi Project glasses, tattoos and ear-piercings, Mattia Gex is not what I expected of a traditional alpine farmer. Based in Morgex, a village two valleys to the west of our refuge, Mattia hasn’t just seen wolves; he’s had his cows sent into a panic by them.

“They kill cows as well as sheep,” he tells me. “Because cows are big and dangerous to the wolf, instead of attacking directly, the wolf panics the cows and chases them off a cliff or into a creek where they get stuck. You see the same in Yellowstone when they are hunting bison. And then they come back later to eat them.

“The wolf is very clever,” he adds, with a hint of respect.

In the Tracks of Wolves

Farmer Mattia Gex holds a warning sign about proper etiquette around guard dogs. If herders like Mattia are to coexist with wolves, other mountain users must accept the protective measures they take to defend their livestock.
“They must accept the guard dogs they encounter when walking or mountain biking are not pets and must give them space,” Mattia says, “and they must understand that doing activities at night makes it more difficult for our guard dogs at a time when they need to be most focused.”

This adaptable opportunism has made the wolf Europe’s most successful big carnivore at persisting in human-dominated landscapes, and as it becomes more habitualized to humans —and especially as wolf-dog hybrids begin to appear— encounters become increasingly likely. Given this recent phenomenon, taking steps to manage such interactions seem more pertinent than ever.

“The best protection is the shepherd,” Mattia says, when I ask him about such measures. Having a permanent presence with the flock may work well, but it’s also labor intensive. The next best thing comes with four legs.

In the Tracks of Wolves

Guard dogs may be fearsome defenders, but they’re also adorable students. Mattia has been training this 3-month-old puppy at his farm in Morgex, Italy, and when it’s old enough it will join his other three guard dogs in Aosta’s mountain pastures. Such dogs can be very effective in keeping wolves away from livestock, especially when paired with temporary fencing as a corral.

“Whenever I have a dog with me on the mountain, I don’t have any problems [from wolves],” he says, playing with an excited, 3-month-old puppy. When its old enough and trained, it will join Mattia’s other three guard dogs. Deployed full-time to guard livestock, dogs can significantly deter wolves—the wolf smells the dog from afar and usually avoids the area—especially when combined with temporary netting fences that corral sheep under the dog’s watchful eye.

Those are just two of the many protection methods for which grants are available, along with funding for volunteer summer shepherds. In 2020, Aosta Valley’s farmers received over 15,000 Euros in attack compensation awards but were awarded more than 72,000 Euros of grants to install protection.

Perhaps that is what will ultimately bring more farmers around on prevention: financial peace of mind. If they can’t show approved countermeasures were in place at the time of an attack, they cannot claim compensation for the lost livestock. In the Aosta region, at least, most reported attacks involve unprotected livestock that are free roaming and uncorralled, which emphasizes the effectiveness—and financial security—of Mattias’s dog-and-fence approach.

Despite this uptake in the idea of protection, buying into such schemes can divide the farming community. While showing me a warning sign typically posted when these fiercely defensive guard dogs are deployed, Mattias explains the dichotomy of attitude that exists among farmers.

“Some think I am crazy, or that I am on the side of the wolf because I get dogs, but I am just looking to protect my flock,” he says. “If you have a house full of gold and you leave the door open and a robber comes in, you can’t just ask for the robber to be killed or complain that the police didn’t do their job. It’s the same with the wolf. You have to take responsibility.”

These differing views stretch across Europe. Following nearby France’s example, the Aosta Valley regional government now permits wolves to be killed should they “prove to be a persistent nuisance and all other means of deterrent fail, so long as the stable wolf population is not harmed.” Meanwhile, in Scotland, reintroducing wolves is being seriously considered as a biological control to its sapling-munching deer population, which will help reforesting efforts in parts of the country.

In Scandinavia, similar efforts have been chastened by sheep farmers and elk hunters, and Norway already has a widely contentious policy of only allowing three reproductive packs in the country. Under heavy pressure from hunting lobbies, Finland, Sweden and Norway have implemented state-sanctioned culls of their already meagre wolf populations: around 300 to 400 in Sweden and Finland, and 80 in Norway. This is in direction contradiction to both 1992 E.U. Habitats Directive and the 1979 Bern Convention, which gave wolves legal protection across Europe.

Those protections were put into further doubt in November of 2022, when—citing the impact of wolf attacks on livestock—the European Parliament adopted a resolution to move towards downgrading the wolf’s protection status.

It seems that, having returned, the path ahead for the wolf is far from an easy one.

In the Tracks of Wolves

Dropping from the Mont Fallère refuge, the Becca France trail descends over 1,000 meters through a mix of sweeping alpage, craggy ridgeline and dense subalpine forest—not a bad way for Manon Carpenter and Ludo May to finish off a few days searching for wolves.

On our last morning, we ride towards a classic local trail called Becca France and stop to shoot some photos on a ridge. At my feet I see a discarded bone about four inches long. A marmot thigh, perhaps? I wish the zoologist in me was savvy enough to determine what had picked it clean. Nearby, “our” adopted golden eagle glides past again, almost at our level, keeping a watchful eye and sending a loudly whistling marmot scurrying for cover. I’m struck by the harsh beauty and equalizing power of nature—when it’s allowed to flourish.

In the Tracks of Wolves

A cross-topped cairn marks the summit of Becca France Peak behind Ludo May and Manon Carpenter, as they make their way towards the floor of the Aosta Valley still hundreds of meters below.

“We have to learn how to manage the situation and live with it,” Mattia says. “If people accept the return of the wolf, then they must also accept that we must put in place more protective measures for our farm animals, and other mountain users must change their attitude too. If we all don’t change our attitudes, then we will need more regulation for all mountain users.”

Mattia’s words show an appreciation for the powerful landscapes of the Aosta Valley around us, and an understanding of the importance of sharing this landscape with others—human and otherwise. And it is in this passion, exhibited by a tattooed farmer, that I see a glimmer of hope for the wolf.

In the Tracks of Wolves

Manon Carpenter leads Ludo May from the summit of Punta Leysser, after a morning spent searching the surrounding hillsides for wildlife.

“I don’t like the wolf, but I don’t dislike it either and killing it is not a solution,” Mattia says. “If we kill it, then in 50 years something else will come along and then we will kill that too, just because we don’t like it. And then everything will go wrong.”

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