Fourth excuse to kill wolves emerges: Italy starts to kill natural crossbreeds

Before you dive into this article, let us define some terminology. This article is about wolf-dog crossbreeds, which you probably know as wolf hybrids. We speak of these so-called crossbreeds, when a wolf and dog produce offspring. Technically, a hybrid only occurs when two different species mate, and a hybrid is infertile. However, a wolf-dog crossbreed is fertile. The reason for this is because wolves and dogs are not different species: dogs are a subspecies of wolves. Wolves and dogs even share more DNA than two random humans. Still, some people believe that these natural crossbreeds are threatening the existence of wolves. As a result, the excuse to kill crossbreeds (and wolves) is growing. And this threatens the survival of wolves, instead of helping them.

Please read also: Wolf cross-breeds, friend or foe?

Unlawful solutions to coexistence challenges

The population of wolves is Europe is slowly recovering, after it almost disappeared completely. For over 100 years the wolf was absent in many regions. Yet, currently the wolf explores and settles in new countries one by one. And this worries some people. Especially hunters and farmers, who often fear that the wolf predates the wildlife and livestock, are strongly fighting against the return. Their influence on decision-makers results in different excuses why certain countries decide to ‘manage’ their wolf populations. European countries use three reasons to kill wolves (and other large carnivores): to (1) manage the human-wolf conflicts, (2) increase public tolerance towards wolves, and (3) control the wolf population. Yet, evidence shows that herd management is more effective than killing wolves.

Crossbreeds lead to 4th excuse for the begin of eradication

Now, more and more countries come up with another excuse strategy to kill wolves. From the Wilderness Advocate Mauro Belardi, head of our Italian Partner NGO Eliante, we received the following news as Italy starts killing natural crossbreeds:

Some questions about crossbreeds

Wolf-dog crossbreeds are a significant part of the wolf population in the Italian Apennines. But are they a problem for people or livestock? All scientific studies tend to deny that there are behavioural differences. Crossbreeds are not more confident nor more harmful than wolves, as the Large Carnivores Initiative for Europe recently confirmed. Still many people claim the opposite. Whether DNA mixing of domestic dog and wolves, and in which extent, is a problem for wolf conservation, is a totally different discussion.

Unclear Italian decisions

Without clear knowledge, the Italian government decided to kill some crossbreeds. Or as it is stated, they ‘withdraw them from nature’. This decision does not include a target number, neither a specific objective. Clearly, the main driver for the decision is a social demand, not scientific evidence.

Here are two questions, to stimulate a debate.

  • How did the wolf survive millennia as a species, while dealing with the subspecies dog, if this mix is really a problem?

Take for example in Italian Apennines, a territory full of stray dogs, packs of wild dogs, shepherd dogs and guard dogs. How did the few surviving wolf packs in the 1960s maintained their characteristics? They not only survived, but also expanded and recolonised parts of Europe.

Perhaps the genetic and ethological mechanisms that tend to separate the two species, despite everything, are stronger than we think? Are crossbreeds with 5% dog DNA and 30% of the population (as in Tuscany) a danger to the species? The situation seems to neglect both ethical and legal considerations. Moreover, the government seems only to appeal to local administrators who want to eliminate some wolves.

  • At what level of gene mixing do we distinguish between a ‘normal’ wolf with some dog DNA and a crossbreed?

Recent studies confirm that dog genes are present in the Eurasian populations of wolf since ancestral times. The claim that “wolves of today are no longer real wolves” is thus meaningless. Yet, the wolf still exists and, despite a bit of domestic dog DNA, its populations are expanding. Since dog genes are present in virtually all wolf populations, are natural crossbreeds really dangerous? The lack of a clear definition has great impact, literally a matter of life or death. The ‘normal’ wolf requires protection by law, while Italy now starts killing the crossbreeds.

Where do we draw the line?

There not one single protocol for crossbreeds in Italy, instead there are several. Some consider a hybridisation rate below 5% as normal, other protocols use different numbers. According to some, we should jointly consider a certain rate of hybridisation as part of the wolf population. This includes wolves that may look slightly different, according to a substantially “aesthetic” conception of conservation. But when should we aim to capture every single wolf to verify hybridisation rates? If we confirmed hybridisation in other individuals, or if a wolf looks different? Or every time upon requests for local administrators, hunters, farmers or the media? We could even classify wolves with extremely low hybridisation rates still crossbreeds, according to some.

Now that Italy authorises killing of crossbreeds, a unified answer to these questions is crucial. Especially since the whole operation is questionable from a legal perspective. It is even more important to explain the impact of these decisions to the public. Without political influence, or even scientific proof. After all, we are still looking for the right questions to ask. Or do we let Italy proceed, like with their previous Wolf Management Plan. In that case, irregardless if they were correct or not, they will choose not to inform the citizens. And we know where that brought us…

Killing is not the solution, minimising risk is

The reason why people are concerned about natural crossbreeds, also has to do with the high numbers of stray dogs. Many countries do not keep the number of stray dogs under control. Yet, laws prohibit killing or capturing of stray dogs in several countries. As a result, the numbers have grown significantly. In France alone, the estimate states the presence of 40 000 stray dogs. That is fifty times more than the number of wolves in the country.

A recent study (Pilot et al., 2018) on the long term mixture of wolf and dog genes states the following:

Prevention and mitigation of wolf–dog hybridisation may be essential to comply with the Bern Convention on European Wildlife and Natural Habitats and the EU Habitats Directive. On the other hand, the prohibitions on the killing and capturing of the wolves introduced by these both legal frameworks also cover wild wolf–dog hybrids (Trouwborst, 2014). […]

Back-crossed individuals are typically integrated into wolf packs, and disruption of pack structure due to culling may enhance hybridisation (Moura et al., 2014). Therefore, even if admixed individuals could be unambiguously identified, their removal may be ineffective and could eventually generate more hybrids. The efficient management of admixed populations should be focused, instead, on reducing the factors which cause hybridisation, such as small population size, the presence of free-ranging dogs and unregulated hunting (Moura et al., 2014).

As the scientists conclude, killing of crossbreeds can lead to more cross-breeding between wolves and dogs. Instead of killing natural crossbreeds, we must dedicate our efforts to minimise the risk that causes cross-breeding. This means we must support growth of wolf populations, reduce stray dog numbers, and closely regulate hunting and poaching.

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