Rangers in Sheep's Clothing Face Dual Nature of Protecting, Shooting Wolves

A female wolf saved by park rangers in the Gilboa last week may find herself once again in danger when released back into the wild next week - this time at the hand of her rescuers, who may attempt to cull the pack.

For the past five years the Israel Nature and Parks Authority policy on balancing the wolf population in Israel has been to protect them in some areas while allowing the culling of up to 50 individuals in others. The policy is aimed at preventing the wolf population from growing out of proportion and preying on livestock, whose aggrieved owners sometimes kill wolves without permission using poison in order to protect their livelihood.

Recently, the Authority published a report on the wolf population in the north of the country between 2003 and 2006 that showed a slight drop in their numbers. Data shows more than 200 wolves were shot dead by rangers, hunters and cattle herders in three years. Still, officials at the Authority believe wolves in the north are not endangered and that more than 150 individuals, spread out over the Jezreel Valley and Carmel Mountains, remain.

Ecologist Alon Reichman, who runs the wolf veterinary center for the Authority, said the wolf population has dropped for a number of reasons.

"The presence of shepherds in the field deters wolves even when no shooting is involved," Reichman explained.

"In addition, cattle herders use dogs and, at least in one case, donkeys, which frighten the wolves."

Rangers use a number of methods to make sure the wolves aren't hunted into extinction, like carrying out periodic headcounts and attaching devices that send out a signal if the wolf has not moved for a long time, indicating that the animal is dead.

About 12 such devices have been placed on wolves in the north and rangers track their movement at least once a week. Field observations have revealed that wolves take refuge in areas where hunting does not take place, like mine fields or nature reserves.

"You could say the situation nowadays is under control," Dr. Yehosuha Shkedi, the chief scientist for the Authority, said.

"On the one hand the wolf population is not growing uncontrollably and on the other, it does not face extinction. This [balance] has been obtained, among other things, through culls, though we obviously don't like it."

Reichman admits that Authority officials face a moral dilemma when forced to shoot wildlife they want to protect.

"Of course it's difficult, but people understand we have to look at the big picture and work with farmers so that they stop spreading poison," he said.

In Europe, wolves were almost hunted into extinction a few years ago by livestock owners who wanted to protect their herds. In recent years they have been reintroduced into the wild and their numbers have increased.

However, some European countries similar in size to Israel, like Croatia, still have fewer wolves in the wild. In the Savoy region of the Alps there are an estimated 100 wolves. Authorities in Europe receive complaints from farmers that ask for permission to cull the wolf population but the European Union has so far blocked these requests.