Home Newsletter 2011 The Monitoring of the Presence of the Wolf and Bear in the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park

by Annette Mertens

One of the main aims of the Park Bodies is to get to know the distribution and density of the different wildlife species which live in the protected area. In simpler terms, they try find out how many animals there are and which areas they visit. This is necessary so as to be able to manage the territory in a way which safeguards the rarest and most vulnerable species in the most effective way.

The monitoring activity for the presence of wolves and bears in the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park is one of the main actions of the life EX-TRA project. The problems relating to these two species are very different: the presence of the wolf is growing, while the bear’s presence in the Park has been signalled only sporadically and, therefore, indicated only case of animals passing through.

The wolf has always been present in the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga territory. Even if there was a drastic reduction of its distributional area and a great decrease in density (less than 100 wolves in Italy) until the 1970s, there has been an inversion of tendency during the last thirty years. The species has begun increasing in number and, thanks to the protection guaranteed by the law and the protected areas, the status of the wolf has improved. There is now an estimated population of 500-800 wolves in Italy.

Due to their elusiveness and their tendency to use ample territories, carnivores, in particular large carnivores, are a systematic group and it is difficult to acquire information and data on the size of the population and the composition of the groups.

The Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park Body has been conducting monitoring activity aimed at locating the number of wolf litters present in the protected area territory since 1999.

The life EX-TRA project has given continuity to and expanded the sampling efforts produced to acquire data on the number of litters, the size of the packs and the areas of activity of the wolf in the park.

The wolf howling technique was used to locate the litters.
This technique was applied with the main aim of determining the number of reproductive groups present in the protected area territory, which stretches out for 1500 square kilometres. It is based on the tendency of wolves, and above all pups, to respond to the emission of recorded howls or human imitations. The technique was applied based on the protocol developed in North America which provides for a systematic sampling of the area being studied by means of emission/listening stations located on the basis of a grid of 3 kilometres on the side overlapping the area being studied. The sampling effort was “efficacious”. Altogether, 150 emission/listening stations subdivided into 22 circuits for 5 distinct survey sectors were, in fact, located.

Each sector was explored simultaneously for three consecutive nights.
On the basis of this monitoring, the species was shown to be present in the park with 13 – 15 reproductive groups on a surface of about 1500 square kilometres (0.87 – 1/100 km2) during the last three years. Assuming that each pack can be composed of 4/5 individuals and adding a fraction of the population made up of wolves without a pack (15%), there is an approximate estimate of 60 – 85 individuals. This density is even higher to the one found in some areas of North America.

The sighting of wolves has become more and more frequent during the years and it is not so rare to run into a wolf and even come across family groups which are quite numerous. In the last two years seven cases of wolves being killed by attacks from other wolves have been recorded. These were young, dispersed individuals or adult males and females often of advanced aged, which probably died following struggles for the leadership of the pack or because of fights between different packs for control of the territory. These findings confirm that the wolf population in the park is in good health and is approaching the limit constituted by the so-called “holding capacity”: the maximum density of wolves which can be sustained by a particular territory.

Much more knowledge regarding the wolf was obtained thanks to the systematic use of photo/video cameras which furnished a large quantity of film and images. The film and images helped to obtain data and information on the number of individuals which make up the packs, on the presence of individuals which are ill and on the routes used. The images furnished were not only of wolves, but also of many other wildlife species.

The use of photo/video cameras showed the presence of a rare, not very well-known species like the wild cat. It was the protagonist of various films and is showing itself more frequently than in the past.

In the winter, the search for tracks on snow (snow-tracking) was used to integrate the data obtained from wolf howling and camera traps so as to estimate the number and composition of the packs of wolves present in a sample area of the park.

The snow tracking circuit is developed along dirt roads, paths and mule tracks. These are the roads frequently used by wolves in a phase of movement and they are easily accessible for exploration of the territory by operators.

When exploring the snow tracking circuits, it is always hoped that one will run into a bear track. The is because the park territory probably has a relevant role as area of expansion or connection between the protected areas where the species is currently present in more stable and regular ways and the areas of the hoped for colonization, which play a key role for the conservation of the species.

More than 30 “fur traps” have been set up so as to verify and monitor the possible presence of the bear in the park. The traps consisting of olfactory bait surrounded by barbed wire and set up about 50 centimetres from the ground are located prevalently inside wooded or shrubby areas.

The results obtained so far from the monitoring conducted with the life EX-TRA project are important for measuring the reproductive success of the local packs and are a good starting point for evaluating the evolving of the situation with time. It will, however, be necessary to be more precise in locating the areas where the pups are reared and evaluate their use by the wolves.

The preliminary results of this monitoring have shown how the wolf is distributed on the entire Park territory, with what can be considered a relatively high density if compared to the data available at a national and international level. In the development of the project, particular attention will be paid to determining the expansion potential of the species towards the zones outside of the protected area. With reference to this aspect, a situation, which must be evaluated carefully during the years to come, is the risk of the hybridization of the wolf with the domestic dog. This is a phenomenon which seems to be increasing at a national level.