An international study by European scientists warns of the growing number of wolf-dog hybrids in Europe saying these cross-breeds could drive European wolf populations out of existence. A rise in crossbreeding, driven by habitat destruction and human invasion of wolves' territories, is bringing them into greater contact with domestic free-roaming dogs. I spoke to Miroslav Kutal from Palackeho University in Olomouc about the problem and began by asking whether this cross breeding is happening in the Czech Republic as well.
“Yes, that is the case also in the Czech Republic where the wolf population has been increasing since 2014 and we have already detected at least one wolf-dog hybrid which can be a problem in the future.”
So is it a problem for wolves as a species, or for dogs –where exactly does the problem lie?
“It is primarily a problem for the wolf species because with the introduction of dog genes into the wolf population it can be a problem in terms of behavior, ecology or the conservation value of this species and it can potentially create conflict in the wolf packs because hybrids can have other behavioral characteristics than purebred wolves.”
How does such a hybrid behave then?
“That is not yet well documented because the research is fairly new, but as far as we know, hybrids do not have such a fear of humans as wolves, so there can be a bigger problem in terms of conflicts related to livestock and so on.”
“Mostly the problem is that these puppies are born in the wild, and then they can have some dog characteristics and behave differently, but of course if such puppies are born on a farm, then their behavior would differ from the behavior of dogs –it would be much harder to train them, as we are used to training dogs.”
And apart from genetic damage to the wolf species as such, are these hybrids able to survive in the wild?
“We know that some wolf-dog hybrids are able to survive in the wild and cross-breed with dogs or wolves again, but we do not know how the situation would evolve if this were to happen much more frequently than it does now. So potentially, it could be a problem. These hybrids could be more inclined to hunt domestic animals than wolves’ natural prey.”
How many of these wolf-dogs have we got around Europe now, according to this study?
“The problem is that there is no clear definition of the term “hybrid” and it differs from one state to another. So the study did not directly focus on the process of hybridization as such, but on the need to unify the terminology so that we can define the rate of hybridization. But according to preliminary investigations, cases of wolf-dogs in Central Europe are still rare, they are more frequent in southern Europe, in Italy or Spain where there are more stray dogs.”
Countries in Europe have been called on to stop this mating –but how can it be curbed?
“There are several things that European countries can do to prevent hybridization. One is to have a stable wolf population because when they are not under pressure from poachers or hunters there would not be such a need to mate with dogs. The second is to introduce genetic monitoring of the population and to have special intervention teams that are able to deal with the problem and eliminate hybrids from the population.”
What is the situation with wolves in the Czech Republic today?
“The population has been growing since 2014 when we had the first wolf pack in the Czech Republic, now we have about 18 wolf territories, that are now at least partly on Czech territory and we expect that their number will grow further in the years to come.”
Is poaching a problem?
“We have had at least one confirmed case of poaching and we suppose there were more of them in the past since we lost some of the packs that inhabited areas that we were monitoring.”
We’ve also heard farmers protest against their presence –so tell me can wolves and people coexist in this day and age?
“Co-existence is certainly possible because we see such a situation in other countries like Germany, Italy or Spain where there are many more wolves than there are in the Czech Republic . So coexistence is possible, though of course it is not easy. The wolf is a very smart animal and farmers have to take safety measures –like electric fences - to protect their herds against attacks.”
Wolves are quite adaptable and even when they life on a large territory they also visit areas which are inhabited by humans, but we know of cases where wolves live close to densely inhabited areas and there are no damages to livestock, so it depends mainly on the farmers, on how they protect their animals. It also depends on whether the wolves have enough prey, which is generally not a problem in this country.”
Can they be dangerous to people?
“Sheep are the main problem, though we cannot exclude the possibility of an attack on humans or on other animals. However in Central Europe we have not recorded a case of a wolf attack on a human in the last 50 years. “
It is said wolves tend to shy away from people, especially in daylight…
“Yes, wolves tend to avoid people, although there have been some encounters reported with wolves who were curious, but these situations were not dangerous for humans. Especially young wolves that have no experience with people are sometimes curious when they come across people in cars and so on. Most of these encounters were documented on cell phones and they were not dangerous.”
“Well, I am optimistic and I hope we will find a way to coexist without conflicts, but it depends also on the patience of farmers and on the ability of the state to create good conditions for farmers, especially to give them support in realizing safety measures because that support right now is quite low.”
Does the wolf have a natural enemy in this country?
“Wolves don’t have a natural enemy in this country. They interact with bears and with lynxes, but that is not a direct limiting factor. The main limiting factor is the amount of prey and mortality caused by humans such as collisions with cars and so on.”
“Well, in my opinion it is good to have a place where people can admire wolves, but I don’t think this observatory run by the Šumava National Park was needed. The mission of national parks is different and I think we should have more sanctuaries for cases of wounded animals or orphans so there is a sufficient capacity to help these animals and return them to the wild.”
Wolves hadn’t lived here since the 19th century. What other predators have returned or are returning to our forests – bears have come back as well, haven’t they?
“Yes, bears are back as well. They are coming mainly from the east, from Slovakia and Poland and they also create potential conflicts in some areas. In one case, two years ago, there was a bear that was really bold and kept going to inhabited areas. We eventually captured the bear and put a monitor on it to we could watch its behavior. And its behavior soon changed. So it is not necessary to eliminate animals who behave a little bit strangely for some time. We can use deterrent methods.”
“Yes, when we are talking about large carnivores it is –wolves, bears, lynxes and also the Golden Jackal which is a medium-sized animal, something between a fox and a wolf, and this species is spreading mainly from the south.”
Is the Czech Republic – are the authorities – prepared to nurture these animals and help them survive?
“Well, wolves started coming back in the 1990s, which is long enough for us to be prepared to deal with potential conflicts, but that is not the case in all regions where wolves have reappeared and in some areas there is continuing opposition from local farmers. So I think we need a much more detailed plan how to deal with such conflicts, and enter into communication with hunters and farmers. This is something that has not been done in an adequate measure by the local authorities.”