Coexisting with Predators

by Paul White

It is well documented that ecosystem health can be positively assisted by top predators such as wolves. However, if we are to successfully coexist with them we need to look at the reasons or excuses for their persecution.

In Transylvania I have interviewed many shepherds and forest workers, but to date I cannot find one documented case of a wolf attacking a human. So if wolves pose virtually no physical threat to man, why are they feared and hated so much?

The most widely used argument is that wolves compete with man for food, thereby threatening the livelihoods of farmers and hunters. This perceived rivalry has of course been one sided as the wolf is genetically programmed to hunt and care for it's family. Humans on the other hand have made the conscious decision to 'take over' the wilderness in an attempt to dominate and 'tame nature' to their advantage, namely trouble free livestock food production and rival free hunting.

As we know from history the wolf has been depicted as an evil creature for more than a century, dangerous, cunning and devious. People have been fed with this negative propaganda in many forms, from word of mouth right through to modern day mass media, starting in childhood with cartoons such as 'Little Red Riding Hood'. Demonizing the wolf did of course have the desired effect, leading to fear, loathing and hatred, all the ingredients required for largely unopposed mass extermination.

In the United States especially, a combination of hatred for wolves and the desire to 'tame nature' for agricultural purposes reached such fever pitch that hunting, poisoning and trapping brought the wolf population close to extinction by the mid 1930's. The scale of extermination was maintained and perpetuated by US government funding and the formation of 'control' agencies which extended their persecution of predators to include raptors, mountain lions, prairie dogs and coyotes.

[2] How many wolves have been killed in the US? No one knows for sure but it is estimated that between one and two million were exterminated in the western US in the last half of the 19th century alone.

[3] However, we know that prior to this modern day extermination, wolves had existed in the Americas for thousands of years alongside 'first nation' man. So we know that humans could and can coexist with wolves, but only when the occupying human population is willing to tolerate top predators.

Do wolves prey on man? This is rare, but there have been documented modern day cases in developing countries such as India[4] and in past European 14th to 18th century history. However, such attacks occur under specific circumstances, for instance; extensive deforestation and habitat loss leading to a rapid decrease in natural prey species, too low to maintain existing wolf numbers; intensive agricultural use in wolf territory, especially when livestock are managed by child herders.

Trainee Shepherds

Should man persecute wolves for what comes naturally to them, to hunt and kill prey to sustain themselves and their pack? Wolves have been proven to help control the effects of deer on tree regeneration, not only through predation, but also by creating a 'landscape of fear', which influences deer behaviour, habitat choice and distribution.[1] They also help control the numbers of wild boar in Transylvania which regularly raid farmers crops, especially fields of potatoes. However, hunters often view the control of deer and boar as their domain and view wolves as competitors to their 'sport'.

In Transylvania hunting attracts large revenues especially from wealthy foreign hunters, which have included high profile dignitaries such as King Juan Carlos of Spain. Naturally local rangers that act as guides for wealthy hunters would argue that their motives for killing wolves has more to do with maintaining livelihoods, opposed to the rich who do it  for 'sport'. Nobody is under any illusion that a man that travels all the way from Spain to Romania to shoot bears and wolves, does so for no other reason than pleasure.

Livestock Guardian Dog - Protecting Sheep

How then can we as humans co-exist with top predators, especially where human and predator domains overlap? A shepherd or rancher driving his livestock through wolf territory is surely asking for trouble? We know the wolf is a smart and intelligent animal, and will of course take on any prey, especially when there is little resistance and a reduced risk of personal injury. So if we graze sheep and cattle with no protection, it goes without saying our livestock will be in danger of wolf depredation.

However, what is important is how we deal with livestock depredation by wolves, whilst at the same time recognising their vital role to the wider ecosystem. Simply eradicating them as a food competitor is surely not the answer? I would argue that coexistence is the preferred choice and with a few simple measures farmers can effectively protect their livelihoods, whilst maintaining healthy numbers of wolves, ensuring a natural equilibrium with the environment.

Should we be looking to the past for solutions when wolf numbers were far greater than they are today? Tried and tested methods of livestock protection that have been developed over several generations, work well and are relatively low cost to maintain. Transhumant shepherds in Transylvania are experts in non-lethal livestock protection. They are unarmed and graze their flocks on large, wild inter-forest meadows, living with their flocks from spring to autumn, protected by livestock guardian dogs (LGDs). Is this method of protection 100% effective? Of course not, which is why farmers, shepherds and LGDs need to be constantly vigilant in wolf and bear country. However, wherever LGDs are introduced, livestock owners report a reduction in wolf kills.

This instinct for protecting sheep comes naturally for livestock guardian dogs. However, many shepherds are less interested in breed purity and more concerned about the protective instinct of each dog. So it is not uncommon to find cross breeds that fit the personal requirements and personality traits of local shepherds.

These dogs are introduced to the flock as puppies and see themselves as one of the family. They are fiercely protective of both shepherds and sheep and will put their own lives on the line to protect them. All dogs have slightly different ways of dealing with predators. The LGD cross breeds that I regularly see tend to be very 'verbal' when they see a threat approach. If the predator ignores this warning, the dogs then form a pack and work as a team to tackle either wolf or bear, knowing that their strength is in their numbers. Other dogs such as the Anatolian, graduate their threat, first by looking intently, standing, barking, moving forward and if required attacking the predator.

Livestock Guardian Dogs

At night sheep are penned in a sheepfold which is patrolled by the Livestock Guardian Dogs. The shepherds are not far away, sleeping in boxes raised from the ground and have a side opening doorway to protect them from the elements. Once the alarm is raised the shepherds spring from their shelters to assist their dogs.

Sleeping with your livestock is obviously not a practical solution for all farmers, but a blend of methods can be adopted. In the USA, sheep are often gathered in the evening and held in overnight pens close to the farm, with LGDs left in charge during the dark hours. Usually the farmer will be alerted by any commotion outside and can assist if the LGDs warnings increase with intensity.

When grazing further afield, sheep are penned overnight in portable turbo-fladry fencing, a long cord attached to poles with small fluttering flags with an electrical current running through it. This keeps the sheep in and the wolves out. However, the deterrent effect may be short lived if left in the same location night after night, as wolves will eventually test and breach the fence. Maximum effect is gained when supported by LGD and human presence.

In conclusion, a radical change in attitude is required if we are to secure the long term future of top predators in a world with less forest cover and an ever increasing human population. We have to learn to be more tolerant and foster improved methods for protecting livestock and livelihoods. Wholesale persecution and hunting of predators may resolve some local predatory conflicts with humans in the short term, but such short sighted ambitions will do nothing for our environment as a whole.


1. Deer culls are not effective for forest protection by Constantine Alexander

2. The killing agency: Wildlife Services' brutal methods leave a trail of animal death by Tom Knudson

3. Wolf Pack: Tracking Wolves in the Wild by Sylvia A. Johnson & Alice Aamodt

Further recommended reading/media:-

Working with Ranchers to Protect Livestock and Wolves - Defenders of Wildlife

Among Wolves by Gordon Haber