Large populations of wolves are currently expanding across Europe, prompting experts to search for solutions to build harmonious relationships between these carnivores and human communities. A new study led by researchers at the University of Leeds examined rural communities in Spain with wolf populations in their proximity to identify ways of peaceful coexistence.
Spain is home to one of Europe’s largest wolf populations, including almost 2,500 wolves. A research team led by doctoral student Hanna Pettersson from Leeds’ Sustainability Research Institute examined three village communities from Spain: one with a permanent presence of wolves, one where the wolves have recently returned, and one community where their return is expected within the following decade.
The experts discovered that the social, economic, and ecological conditions for coexistence in these communities varied considerably. For instance, guardian dogs trained to fend off wolf attacks were efficient in one location, but less feasible in another, due to factors such as topography or tourism.
“The main problem with wolves in areas where wolves and people shared space was often less about the wolves themselves, but about economic and social pressures that were threatening the livelihoods, cultures and autonomy of local communities,” explained Pettersson.
“Today, thanks to strict conservation laws, urbanization and improved habitat conditions, we are seeing a return and expansion of large carnivores, such as wolves, to many types of landscapes across Europe. This is a hopeful sign for the global nature restoration movement, which is a crucial part of dealing with the ongoing biodiversity and climate crises.”
Pettersson and her team identified several key conditions that are needed for the peaceful coexistence of people and wolves. First off, effective institutions that can tailor the demands of global conservation priorities to local conditions and communities are necessary. Such institutions must be able not only to ensure the long-term survival of wolf populations, but also to provide low levels of risk or vulnerability to human communities and their livestock.
Importantly, decision-making should be a collective endeavor, tailored to the needs of local communities. “We must ensure that solutions are built collectively and that decision-making is supported by a large part of society – especially by the people, entities and groups affected,” said Pettersson.
“Wolves are returning to places where they have been extinct for decades, sometimes centuries. The key challenge we face is preparing and supporting communities so that they can adapt and flourish, thanks to, or sometimes despite, their return,” she concluded.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Sciences.