TENDUA - Association for biodiversity conservation

The Common Grey Wolf in France

Wolf Portrait
Wolf Portrait
“We had for them no hatred. They made their wolves’ business as we made our men’s business. They were God’s creatures. As we were. They had been born predatory. As the man. But they had remained predatory, while the man had become destructive.” By Paul-Emile Victor - © M. Dupuis

“Wolf, are you there? Can you hear me? What are you doing?”

France – Parc du Mercantour

The Wolf has returned to France

While counting chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) in the Mercantour National Park (Alpes de Haute-Provence) in November 1992, the return of two common grey wolves (Canis lupus italicus) was officially recorded in France, confirmed by the presence of their preys’ carcasses and wolves faeces. These wolves most likely arrived from Italy, where a protected population has been living since 1973. Since 1993 a protocol for following the population has been set up in Mercantour, and with the geographical expansion of the wolves’ presence, this protocol has been extended to different departments of the French alpine region.

This follow-up, coordinated by the ‘Big Carnivorous Network, Wolf-Lynx-Bear’ [réseau grands carnivores loup-lynx-ours] (ONCFS), is based on recording evidence of the presence of wolves. The microscopic analysis of animal remains (bones, hair, fur, feathers, plants etc.), which have not been digested but found in feaces, allows us to determine the wolf’s diet and to evaluate its impact equally on the wild fauna as well as the domestic livestock populations. Only genetic typing allows identification with certainty the wolf’s faeces from that of a fox, dog, lynx or other animal faeces.

The growth of the wolf population from 1996 to 2008 has been around 15% [1], which is considered quite low for a population that is theoretically free to expand. A more optomistic rate would have been around 20-30%, which would have led to a total population of around 250-500 wolves in 2008, considering a population of 60 individuals in 2000.

Today, it is considered that the primary cause of wolves’ over-mortality in France is linked to poaching, by shooting or poisoning. At least a hundred Wolves have been illegaly killed since 2000, which equates to around 10 per year, but in reality reaches a few dozen in certain years. Since 2001, more than 100 wolves have been killed by motor vehicles.

A social species
A social species
© M. Dupuis

Evolution and Facts

The European grey wolf weights around 25 to 50 kg. He is a good swimmer and even a better runner. He can reach a top speed of 45-50 km/h and is able to cover more than 60km per night. His bite has a force of 150kg/cm², twice that of a domestic dog.
His vision angle is 250° (compared to 180° for humans). At night, the wolf’s eyes seem to glow, as they are covered by a layer of cells which allow him to see equally well during the day and night.
He is able to hear sounds up to 40 kHz (only 20 kHz for humans), and can hear other wolves roaring from a distance of 6 to 10 km.

The pack, a social structure for the Wolf

The packs of wolves vary of the simple couple to the dozen individuals
The packs of wolves vary of the simple couple to the dozen individuals
© M. Dupuis

Wolves are extremely social animals. They exist in a social unit called a pack. The core of a pack, the basic unit of wolf social life, is a mated pair of wolves - an adult alpha male and alpha female that have bred and produced young. Within each pack is an elaborate hierarchy. It may consist of a single breeding pair, a lower group consisting of non-breeding adults, each with its own ranking, a group of outcasts, and a group of immature wolves, from pups to two or three-years-olds. Some of the younger wolves of the pack may leave to find vacant territory (i.e. where prey is abundant) and also mate. The pack is made up of animals related to each other by blood and family ties of affection and mutual assistance.

Dominance: erect and forward pointing ears and erect tail
Dominance: erect and forward pointing ears and erect tail
© M. Dupuis

The alpha male and female are the oldest members of the pack and the ones with the most experience in hunting, defending territory, and other important activities. They also feed themselves first. The other pack members respect their positions and follow their leadership in almost all things, The alpha wolves are usually the ones to make decisions for the pack, when the group should go out to hunt or move from one place to another.
Importantly, the alpha male is the only one who breeds with the alpha female when she is on heat. There are however some exceptions: when the alpha male is too old, one of the submissive males can fight for the top position and will take it if he is able to dominate the alpha male.

In Europe, pack sizes vary from a couple up to a dozen wolves, although some may include as many as 40-50 wolves as can be seen in Northern America. The pack size depends on many variables including the size of the territory, which in turn depends on the abundance of available food.
The pack size varies also with the seasons. The main factors for this variance are mortality and dispersion. Some wolves will leave the pack or could be banished after losing a conflict. Sometimes, tensions rise for number of reasons: at the end of the winter, when food is rare, during mating season when males want to breed (end of February/ March) or just to dominate the other wolves. For social animals like wolves, life within a pack has many advantages;

  • Hunting is more efficient: the pack can hunt prey bigger than themselves for example elks (Cervus elaphus), moose (Alces alces), buffalo (Bison bison) or arctic muskoxes (Ovibos moschatus),
  • Protection of their young, their education and initiation to the basics of hunting through play – the pack is like a nursery where each member takes care of the youngest,
  • The fact that just the alpha couple breeds, prevents the proliferation of wolves in a territory, in addition, if food is scarce, wolves will not breed each year.

Reproduction

The male reaches his sexual maturity at the age of three and the female at two years old. The mating season takes place, depending on the region of the world, from January to March. Other females are subjected to a psychological castration from the alpha female whose behaviour is very aggressive during this period of the year. The alpha male is less aggressive towards his submissive, but sometimes there can be violent fights. Usually only the alpha male breeds with the alpha female, but some of the other males of the pack may also breed with the alpha female. Then there is a spermatic competition and the cubs from the same litter can have different fathers. After 61-63 days gestation, the female gives birth to cubs between March and June. A litter can be from 3 to 8 cubs each weighing between 300 and 500 grams. They are blind and deaf during their first two weeks of their life. During the third week they can go out of the den to explore the world around them. After being suckled by the mother, they progressively eat more solid food, pre-digested and regurgitated by the adults.

After 6 weeks, the young wolves begin to play. During their play and other activities, they are constantly testing their mother to find out who will eventually be the “top wolf” in their age group. Within the pack’s hierarchy, they occupy the lowest position and they approach the older wolves in submissive positions: bent legs, head down, eyes lowered, flat ears and mouth closed. When they reach 6-months old, they learn how to hunt. Nearly half of the pups die during their first year due to fighting, a hunting accident, inexperience, diseases or victims of predators (bears and lynx). The juveniles and pups under two years old do not occupy permanent positions within the pack hierarchy. They all take orders from their parents and older brothers and sisters, but their relationships with each other change frequently.

Wolf communication

Intimidation and aggressiveness: ears back and bared teeth
Intimidation and aggressiveness: ears back and bared teeth
© M. Dupuis

The methods that wolves use to communicate with fellow pack members are quite elaborate. Wolves use body language, facial expressions and sounds (vocalisation) to communicate with each other, to let the others know their mood and intentions.

Attitudes and body positions

Submission: ears back and down and tail between bent legs
Submission: ears back and down and tail between bent legs
© M. Dupuis

Wolves adopt positions and “Facial expressions” which express their feelings. A few examples:

normal stateerect ears and downcast tail
submission, fearears back and down and tail between bent legs
aggressivenessears back and bared teeth
dominanceerect and forward pointing ears and erect tail
Attention and fear: ears pricked up and tail down
Attention and fear: ears pricked up and tail down
© M. Dupuis

Various facial muscles, eyes, ears and the nose are extremely important when wolves are expressing their feelings. Bared teeth, an open mouth, ears erect and forward pointing indicate a threat by a dominant wolf. Dominant wolves will freely look other animals directly in the eye, this declares and reinforces their superior rank.
A subordinate wolf will cringe towards the leader with tail low and bent legs, ears back and down, in a submissive nature. At other times, active submission involves a group of subordinate wolves surrounding the dominant wolf with their noses up against him. Sometimes the pack will howl.

Vocalisation

Scientists can distinguish 5 kinds of sound vibrations, each of which corresponds to a social function. There is growling (when there is a threat), barking (to signal a danger), yaps and moans (to play and show affection), and, of course the roaring. The roaring consists of low frequency sounds, which propagate well in the air and can be heard for a distance of a few kilometres. Roaring is very important for the pack. Roaring could help wolves to localise other members of the pack, to defend their territory by warning off neighbouring packs, to join the pack, to greet, to maintain cohesion within the group or rally the pack before hunting.

Moaning warns other wolves living nearby of the presence of the pack to prevent intrusions. Moaning and roaring are made up of different harmonics which give the impression that the pack who is roaring is much more numerous that it really is. Sometimes a lonely wolf roars to draw attention of a potential mate. Each wolf has his own distinct call.

Exchanging scents

Wolf in full olfactive marking with its facial glands
Wolf in full olfactive marking with its facial glands
© M. Dupuis

Wolves use their sense of smell as an external communication tool due to their facial, precaudal, perineal and anal glands and those under the small cushions under their feet.
These glands secrete particular scents, which express the emotional state of the animal (fear, agression for example).
Wolves are also very territorial animals and do not readily share territory with wolves who are not members of their pack.

Dominating wolf marking its food
Dominating wolf marking its food
© M. Dupuis

They communicate and mark their territories by scent. They often do this by urinating near the edges of their territory, and on stumps, rocks and logs that are within their territory. The dominant wolves do most of this, usually the alpha male. They also leave scents with their faeces or secretion of their anal glands dedicated to this function. These secretions are identifiable by each fellow pack member. Wolves rub on each other, and scents insure the pack’s cohesion and ward off non-pack members. These brandings help to deliniate territories and give information on the wolves’ state (period of reproduction, pup-feeding and so on). In addition, their olfactory capacities allow them to recognise the smell of their fellow pack members and to detect an animal at a distance of 270 m in the wind. Wolves can smell a human at a distance of 2km, depending on climatic conditions.

Predation

The wolf is at the top of the food chain. As a result, he can not increase his population as it is still highly correlated the abundance of prey: too many wolves would decimate the game population on which he depends on his existence. This gives the top predator the role of a cleaner and a regulator of natures balance, because he attacks diseased animals (containment of epidemics), malformed young (natural selection) or reckless, or older animals. He contributes to the development of healthy animal populations. The hunt takes place exclusively within the territory of the pack. Scientists have observed wolves stop hunting an animal that enters the territory of another pack.
The wolf’s diet varies both according to different regions of the world he inhabits, but also according to the presence of food resources that vary during the year. In summer, the game is sufficiently abundant to the wolf it is less dependent on the presence of large mammals. He may then only hunt smaller prey and has a more varied diet: hares, rabbits, rats, frogs, fish and even fruit. However, in winter prey becomes scarce. Also the presence of large wild ungulates (bighorn sheep, chamois, roe deer, deer, ibex, wild boar, and cervidae for European countries) is necessary for the survival of the pack. Against prey of this size, they hunt in packs and at night, which increases their chances of success.

In the Mercantour, bighorn sheep (Ovis musimon) were introduced in the 1950s to provide game for hunters. Bighorn sheep in the Mercantour are therefore a relocated species. In 1990, shortly before confirmation of the wolf’s return to France, two valleys in the Mercantour had a population of around 360 bighorn sheep in herds of up to 50 individuals. These animals were not particularly timid, but they were not well adapted to the snowy winter environment. The sheep did not live above an altitude of 1500m, while the resident chamois would climb much higher, up to 3000m (there are about 12,000 chamois in the 60000ha Mercantour National Park). These bighorn sheep have been ‘super-hunted’ by the wolf. In 2008, there was an estimated stable population of about 80 bighorn sheep: those who survive have now actually adapted well to this environment and predation from wolves. The sheep represent 94% of the diet of wolves in the region, including the Meulière pack of 6 wolves that move over an area estimated at 65 sq km.

To satisfy their physiological needs, the wolf must eat between 2 and 3 kg of meat daily. But a wolf is able to swallow up to 8 kg of food at once, to offset periods when food is not available (the wolves are able to fast for several weeks).

Just to end with the Big Bad Wolf...

“Wolves are afraid of the man for evident reasons, the man, him, is afraid of the wolf by misunderstanding.”. John Theberge
“Wolves are afraid of the man for evident reasons, the man, him, is afraid of the wolf by misunderstanding.”. John Theberge
© M. Dupuis

In Europe every means was used to eradicate the wolf: hunting, rounding up, trapping, poisoning, and slaughtering of wolf cubs in their dens...

  • In France in 813, Charlemagne created the “Compagnie de la Louveterie” with the objective to eradicate ‘vermin’ including boars, foxes, badgers, otters and wolves.
  • At the end of the XVIIIth century, the French wolf population was around 10 to 20 thousand individuals.
  • At the beginning of the XIXth century, 5 to 7 thousand wolves were still present in nearly 90% of the French departments. At that time, around 1400 wolves were still being exterminated each year.
  • In 1882, the premiums paid for wolves were greatly increased. This finally sounded the death knell for the wolf in France. Within a few decades, the wolf was no longer reported in half the French departments. In addition to the poison, guns and premiums, deforestation was a major cause of eradication of wolves in France, with the disappearance of their natural prey. At that time, rural populations were steadily increasing and clearing of the land decreased the wolves’ territory including that of their prey, as well as removing the natural corridors between these areas.
  • Despite the reprieve granted by the wars of 1870 and 1914-1918, the wolf was almost extinct in the early XXth century. It appears that the last two wolves were killed in France in 1942.
Curious or Frightened?
Curious or Frightened?
© M. Dupuis

Since the return of the wolf in France, fears have been reignited. Our Western civilisation, which depicts wolves as representing the enemy of the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God, has justified the massacres in which the wolf has been the victim. Other civilisations like Native American or Siberian shamanism recognise the great virtues of the wolf. In America, Wolves served as models for hunting and played a significant role in the religious lives of the plains tribes and other groups of North American Indians. For the American Indians, it is a great privilege to have a brother wolf and be protected by his spirit. Powerful and courageous wolves were seen as representatives of important natural forces or spirits. Images of wolves often appeared in religious ceremonies and Indian healers included wolf skins in their medicine bundles, the collections of sacred materials that they used for curing illness.
The Yakut of Eastern Siberia advises to take the wolf as a friend, because when you are lost, the wolf is the only one who knows his way through the forest Native Education explains that the wolf is very aware to the slightest changes in his environment and he teaches us to do the same and to rely on our instincts, thus they become our guardian guides.

Some scientists believe that the social structure of the Wolf pack is closer to that of humans than that of the apes. Wolves spend a lot of time in play and they constantly communicate. Observing their behaviour can raise the highest values found in the hearts of men. They remind us of the love to which we aspire, loyalty we would like to be surrounded by and curiosity that makes us progress. The wolf is, after all of this, and despite everything that man has done to him, the symbol of freedom, perhaps the highest aspiration that humans can have and who are intolerant of what they cannot dominate.

Myriam Dupuis - Mai 2009

Press release dated July 2, 2015 by the associations of CAP LOUP

The Minister of Ecology (S. Royal) has published two decrees laying down the conditions of shooting and the number of wolves that can be killed for the period 2015-2016. These decisions endorse a policy of destruction supported by the hunting and agricultural lobbies in defiance of the demand of citizens and the obligations of our country. The associations of CAP LOUP are calling for the withdrawal of those measures and complain against France.
These measures were taken while they were overwhelmingly rejected by citizens during the public consultation, and while the French are opposed to the destruction of wolves (IFOP survey 2013). The State obeys to the agricultural unions and the world of hunting, by measures contrary to any notion of coexistence between wolves and livestock.

Wolves can now be slaughtered even if the livestock was not attacked, even if it is not protected, and up to six months after it is back to the barn. The shots are possible even in the heart of national parks. Breeders continue to be subsidized and compensated without consideration or incentive to protect their flock.

The number of wolves that can be killed in 2015-2016 increases by 24 to 36, while the wolf population is decreasing according to the official monitoring (ONCFS: estimated 301 wolves in 2014, 282 wolves in 2015). Slaughters (19 “legal” slaughters in 2014-2015) have shown their ineffectiveness for years as they do not prevent the attacks which continue on inadequately protected herds that concentrate most of the predation.

For a year now we ask to meet Segolene Royal to express our proposals for a better coexistence between wolves and pastoralism. The Minister of Ecology refuses to receive environmental groups while she receives anti-wolf unions and addresses their grievances.

By organizing a wolf hunt that threatens the return of the species at the national level and without trying to promote coexistence with agricultural activities, the state puts France in breach of the Berne Convention and Directive Fauna-Flora-Habitats. Our associations therefore complain against France before the European Commission.

CAP Loup’s Founding Associations & Members


[1The growth rate is actually less than 15% if we don’t take into account the period from 2000-2008 (source V. Fignon for FERUS, April 2009).

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