Another season of fieldwork has passed and another phase of the DNA monitoring study of the wolf (Canis lupus) population in the Făgăraș Mountains is coming to an end. Our specialists started their work in winter 2017 – 2018 and have been adding data every winter until now. The study demonstrates that a long-term monitoring programme can be developed in the Romanian Carpathians and that it can change wildlife management so that decisions are made on scientific data.
Conservation Carpathia manages 78,000 ha (five wildlife management concessions) in the south-eastern Făgăraș Mountains, where it is creating a model of human-wildlife coexistence based on prevention – intervention – compensation.
Prevention involves the donation of Carpathian shepherd dogs and the installation of electric fences to reinforce night-time security in the households or farms. So far, we have donated 46 Carpathian Shepherd dogs and the programme continues under the LIFE/Endangered Landscape Programme funding. Livestock farmers grazing in the Făgăraș Mountains can sign up to receive dogs at firstname.lastname@example.org. The 40 electric fences provided free of charge to local people where there are wildlife problems have proven effective.
The intervention involves the rapid intervention teams acting to resolve direct conflicts between wildlife and locals. Since May 2019, to date the two teams have responded to 508 referrals.
Innovative compensatory measures involve real-time replacement of domestic animals killed by large carnivores. The organisation has voluntarily donated 38 sheep and nine cows in exchange for those lost by 22 local residents as a result of the attacks.
All this contributes to better coexistence between villagers and wildlife, but the basis of this management model must be scientific data on the size of large carnivore populations, the extent of the conflict, the triggers, and so on.
About the project
The decline of animal species is a worsening problem as the environment is under increasing human pressure. In the last 40 years, populations of many species, especially wolves, have declined by 60% and the consequences for the planet are great. Habitat fragmentation and loss, changes in land use, and human expansion into the wild are all having an impact on wildlife numbers. In today’s context, detailed knowledge of the populations of these species is particularly important, as it helps us to adapt our management decisions to ensure their coexistence in the future. For responsible management of large carnivores in the Carpathians, a modern and scientific scheme for monitoring their populations is necessary.
“An important aspect of our work is to determine as accurately as possible the density of large carnivore populations and the most important carnivore food source species,” says Barbara Promberger, wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Conservation Carpathia. “We have developed a monitoring programme based on scientific research on lynx, bear and wolf species, and have recently tested the method on deer, over an area large enough for the ecology of these species – 120,000 hectares. We make wildlife management decisions on much of this area based on the data we obtain. With public and private funding our team has been working since 2017 in the eastern Făgăraș Mountains on a wolf monitoring programme to estimate population size and density, track pack dynamics over time and assess population trends in the context of changes taking place, especially within the species’ habitat. We do not want to capture wolves to study them with collars, for example. That’s why we work non-invasively, taking DNA samples from wolf scat, urine on snow and hairs, which we analyse in Slovenia at one of the best laboratories in Europe,” continues Barbara.
For such a study, the lack of snow in recent years has been a real challenge because it has been difficult to find wolf tracks, which has reduced the chances of finding scat, urine and hair for DNA analysis.
DNA samples and preliminary results
“Of the total number of 505 samples analysed so far, 53% confirmed the genetic fingerprint of the wolf species, 34% were samples containing insufficient DNA, the rest were samples contaminated with other species,” says Ruben Iosif, biology coordinator of the Conservation Carpathia wildlife monitoring team. “This shows that the wolf is not an easy species to study. By comparison, we have a greater success in bear (65%) and deer (75%) samples. It is especially difficult to study wolves if there is a lack of snow, because we cannot find fresh samples that still have sufficient DNA. Analysing the genetic parental relationships between wolves in the project area, we grouped them into six packs ranging in size from three to seven wolves per pack, but with quite a large dynamic within families from winter to winter. Our estimated density is somewhere around 2.35 wolves/10,000 hectares, significantly higher than in northern European countries, but also twice the density found in Yellowstone Park in the USA,” continues Ruben.
And in the season December 2021 – May 2022 the Foundation specialists continue with the collection of samples, and the final results of the study will be published in the first quarter of 2023.
Why is the wolf so important?
The wolf, known from ancient legends such as the story of the she-wolf that fed Romulus and Remus, or a central element on the battle standard of the Dacians, has an important place in the forest food chain to this day. Where wolves were exterminated, ecosystems changed radically, deer multiplied and an imbalance was created by overgrazing of forest vegetation. Even diverted river courses are the result of wolves disappearing, in countries now trying to bring them back into the ecosystem. The best-known example is Yellowstone National Park in the US: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dk0DGCa7ow.
This work is being carried out with financial support from the OAK Foundation, the Large Infrastructure Operational Programme POIM, the European Commission through the LIFE Nature programme (www.ec.europa.eu) and the Arcadia Foundation through the Endangered Landscapes Programme.