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The return of the wolf to the Alps: coexistence in pastoral landscapes

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Tourism and agriculture have transformed the landscape of South Tyrol in northern Italy, creating opportunities for some resourceful residents

The wolf WBZ-F1 has her own place in the heart of the Bolzano-South Tyrol Nature Museum. The people who followed her tracks – wildlife observers, biologists, foresters and curators – were connected to her in a special way via a transmitter for 18 months. They were amazed and touched when they saw a small she-wolf on the camera traps – an intensely working predator who marked her territory, carried out complex and often dangerous hunts, and cared for her pups. Captured in photographs, she walks, nose stretched forward to keep an eye on the terrain. The reconstruction of her route takes us from southern Italy via Piedmont to Switzerland and from there to the regions of the Italian Eastern Alps on the border between South Tyrol and Trentino. She settled in this area, probably because she found rich hunting grounds, and founded her family. In 2020 WBZ-F1 disappeared: was she poisoned?

The EU classifies this area as disadvantaged due to its difficult climatic conditions, which considerably shortens the vegetation period, as well as its steep slopes, which make the use of traditional machinery difficult and only possible with expensive equipment. The transformation of agriculture began later in South Tyrol than in the rest of the Alps; in the 1960s, the large farming family groups dissolved and many emigrated. The farmers were so poor that they sent their children to work on other farms or abroad in order to have fewer mouths to feed. Later, their own beds were rented out to tourists, while they slept in the kitchen or the barn.

Apple farms in the Alps

Agriculture has intensified, including apple farms which are often large, uniform monocultures to ensure maximum productivity

Credit:Alex Rowbotham / Alamy

Yet the great agricultural changes of the past decades have made it possible for farmers to stay on their farms and make a viable living. Apple orchards, which once consisted of diverse varieties, have become monocultures grown on rows of trellises and protected by hail and game nets, extending over large valley areas (South Tyrol is one of the largest closed apple-growing areas in Europe). And small?scale farmers with around eight to twenty cows can survive due to both subsidies and the milk production of their cows. These farmers can sell their products at higher prices than in the rest of Europe, marketed as ‘natural’ mountain milk; the dairy cooperatives promise pure, local hay milk with idyllic pictures of quaint farmers with happy cows on flower-filled mountain pastures.

But some of the agronomists I talk to say this advertising is a scam and agricultural policies are going in the wrong direction. The local hay is not enough to drive this high milk yield; instead, the grain for the concentrate feed comes from other countries. The more concentrated the feed, the larger the milk yield. The stables in the valley now house high-performance animals that are not suitable as grazing animals; their body weight would damage the sensitive local ecosystems and the erosion-prone soil. Their musculature, heavy footing and stiff, laborious movement make this steep terrain impassable. Concentrate feed also means livestock do not need to graze on the grass on the high Alpine pastures. As a result, grazing animals, guided by their guardians, have slowly disappeared from these high pastures, losing their bite, which is beneficial to the Alpine flora, and their tread, which massages the soil.

Wolf in Italy

Credit: Forestry Department of the Province of Bolzano/Bozen

Wolf in Italy

Wolves are making a return to Italy; the she-wolf, known as WBZ-F1, was followed by biologists for 18 months and captured on camera traps

Credit:Forestry Department of the Province of Bolzano/Bozen

Fear of hunger has driven us in the past decades, says one agronomist, and now we are facing another extreme. The excrement caused by the high consumption of concentrate feed accumulates in enormous quantities that suffocate ecologically vulnerable areas, and is often disposed of on the high Alpine pastures. The high nitrogen content of the manure causes the high biodiversity – Alpine flowers, herbs, insects and wild bees – to disappear within a very short time. This manifests in linearly formed, peculiar, bright green grassy meadow, which contrasts strangely with the restrained hues of the high Alpine vegetation.

In 2012, wolves returned to this region. The change in the Alpine landscape was already in full swing. Overripe grass, Alpine roses and junipers, wolfsbane and thistles were encroaching on the pastures and beginning to dominate the tender Alpine grasses. On some Alpine pastures, the first young larch and stone pine trees are already growing along overgrown irrigation channels. New Alpine huts also appeared. Overnight stays in the new huts are comparable to staying in a four-star hotel; websites extol the luxury of the Alpine quality of life. In contrast, dairy farmers’ and shepherds’ huts in remote areas are falling into disrepair. The new Alpine hut hotel might attract tourists, but it also stands for the transformation processes that have taken place on the high pastures of South Tyrol in recent decades; the region’s economic boom would not have been possible without the development of tourism, which has since escalated into mass tourism.

Wolf range map in the Italian Alps

WBZ-F1 settled in the Italian Alps, with a large home range straddling the border between South Tyrol and Trentino, having travelled from southern Italy and into Switzerland

Credit:Forestry Department of the Province of Bolzano/Bozen

In front of these new hotels, with a view of the spectacular mountains, stretch neglected pastures. The filigree, overripe grass bending gracefully in the wind is in fact a sign of decline. The soft whispering of the grasses in the wind is a sinister sound rather than musical poetry. Where are the long-established summer residents of the Alpine pastures, the human and non-human actors who have shaped these landscapes through their interaction? How are these ancestors honoured, who left behind a landscape that currently attracts 31 million overnight tourist stays per year, in a region with 530,000 inhabitants?

Even after the first wolves were sighted, humans were sure that they would only pass through – there were too many people, too many cultivated areas, too much civilisation. But the she-wolf and her conspecifics, like humans, smelled and sensed the richness of the area. An ecosystem out of balance has also changed the wildlife population. The forests, once important resources for less wealthy people, have been left to themselves. Winters are less cold, allowing weaker animals to survive. The coniferous forests of this region are again overflowing with red deer. Our tenacious resident in the border region between South Tyrol and Trentino is able to nourish her small pack with red deer. It is no coincidence that wolves and red deer always meet; evolution has shaped the two together. In her territory, which WBZ-F1 walks and marks over many nights, there are no sheep, which play such a big role in media coverage, but there are red deer in abundance. The close-meshed nets of the apple plantations are her hunting aid; for the red deer they are deadly. As soon as they get tangled up in them, they are attacked by the wolves. This pack live on one deer for three days.

‘How can the wolf be responsible for the decline of a landscape that has been shaped for centuries by the intimate, reciprocal relationship between herders, animals and plants?’

Both wolves and red deer have to be content with their highly restricted habitats. As soon as the red deer, who live in semi-open landscapes, step out of the forest, they find themselves directly on intensively used agricultural land. The same applies to wolves, who are able to live in landscapes shaped by humans, avoiding humans themselves. The human-created monocultures create an imbalance in the ecological system, which benefits the wolves; why should the wolves stay away from this region when it has so much to offer them?

From time to time WBZ-F1 also kills sheep. When the first sheep incidents were reported, a media sabre-rattling broke out and the sheep, a hitherto unnoticed grazing farm animal, gained media attention. It appears in all its bloody facets on the front pages of the local print media. And a narrative of the ‘dangerous’ wolf became entrenched, ignoring the big picture of an overheated economy with mass tourism, concentrate feed from abroad and excessive amounts of manure. Human responsibility for the profound ecological change of high Alpine pastoral cultures is projected onto the return of wolves. The gradual disappearance of grazing animals started fifty years ago when there were no wolves in the region. How can the wolf be responsible for the decline of a landscape that has been shaped for centuries by the intimate, reciprocal relationship between herders, animals and plants? If anything, she is taking advantage of this newly formed landscape in the same way humans have – behaviour for which she is not forgiven, and the likely reason she met her fate.

Lead image: Wolves have a poor public image and have been mercilessly killed in the past – here, hunters proudly display what they believed to be the last wolf in Piedmont in 1921

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