Tracking Wolves in the Carpathian Mountains

Posted: 19th January 2024

Photo: Călin Serban

In a world where wolves are more than just hunters, where each has its own complex life story and social interactions, we embarked on a long journey into the heart of the Southern Carpathians to delve into the fascinating lives of six different wolf packs.

Wolf footprint in Carpathia (c) Claudiu Toanta

Meet the Packs

The six packs were named after their geographical locations – Șercăița, Bârsa-Izvoarele Dâmboviței, Piatra Craiului, Dâmbovița-Râul Târgului, Stoenești, and the Stoenești Hybrid Pack.

The Social World of Wolves

Wolves, the second largest predator on the European continent, are social animals that live in families or pairs. They are usually monogamous, with only one breeding pair in the group. Most of the time, a pack will include the pups of the breeding pair – pups that will eventually leave the pack – but there are many situations where packs will accept unrelated wolves into the group. This dynamic maintains a good genetic diversity and contributes to the viability of the species. During three years of non-invasive DNA sampling and monitoring, we put together a complicated puzzle of wolf pack compositions, movements and territories over an area of about 1,400 km² kilometres in the Southern Carpathians, an area that overlaps with the eastern part of the Făgăraș Mountains, Piatra Craiului, Iezer-Păpușa and Leaota Mountains.

Revealing Pack Stories

Over the three years, we tracked the ups and downs of wolf life, noting changes in breeding pairs and unexpected shifts in pack composition. Among the packs, two out of six experienced changes in breeding pairs, revealing the dynamic nature of these wolf communities.

Camera monitoring: Wolves in winter (c) FCC

The Piatra Craiului pack witnessed a split with changes in breeding pairs and their offspring exploring new territories. Whereas the genetic analysis of the wolf packs Șercăița, Bârsa-Izvoarele Dâmboviței, and Dâmbovița-Râul Târgului revealed shifts in reproductive roles, changes in identified individuals, potential breeding pairs, and unexpected pack compositions. The analysis of the Stoenești and Stoenești Hybrid Pack also revealed the presence of a wolf-dog hybrid as well as dynamic changes in pack composition.

These changes tell a story which illustrates the complexity of wolf life, their interactions within packs, and interactions with neighbouring packs in the picturesque Carpathian Mountains.

Behind the Scenes: DNA Sampling and Monitoring

To understand the wolves, we analysed the genetic imprints of each wolf by collecting urine on snow, scat, and hair left by wolves in the forest to estimate abundance, population density, pack composition and dynamics. The reduction in snow cover in recent years has been one of the biggest challenges for the field team, who have tracked wolves across 1,400 km² of the Southern Carpathians at altitudes ranging from 600 to 2,400 m.

These samples have helped us to identify wolves, establish parental relationships between individuals, reconstruct packs and assess wolf-dog hybridisation. The frequency with which we observed the same individuals at different times allowed us to estimate population abundance and density. These parameters are essential for the conservation of this species and the implementation of a coexistence strategy with local communities.

Collecting the DNA samples (c) Călin Șerban

Conservation Challenges and Strategies

Our study confirmed the presence of a wolf-dog hybrid, the first official genetic confirmation in the Romanian Carpathians, though anecdotes have been circulating among the forestry groups for a while. Although hybridisation appears to be a minor threat at the moment, it needs to be monitored in the long term as it may lead to genetic degradation of the species. In the case of Romania, hybridisation is a phenomenon caused by stray dogs that have appeared in wolf habitats. Every third detection of wolves on surveillance cameras in forest habitats is accompanied by the detection of stray dogs. To assess this phenomenon, rangers of the Foundation Conservation Carpathia collected saliva samples from 21 dogs in the study area, as well as DNA samples left behind by wild wolves. 

This story illustrates the complex interplay between genetic information, individual behaviour, and pack relationships in the Carpathians. It also illustrates the challenges of comprehensive scientific monitoring, as well as the challenges of human-wolf coexistence.

Foundation Conservation Carpathia: Conservation Initiatives

Forest conservation and restoration initiatives within this ELSP project focus on creating favourable conditions for wolf populations. Protecting remaining wilderness, restoring the forests to their natural state and maintaining genetic exchange and connectivity for wildlife are key objectives.

“Through the techniques and methods of study that science provides, we can learn a wealth of data about a species as difficult to study as the wolf, and the genetic study conducted by our team clarifies many unknowns about the wolf population in Romania. It is important to monitor these wolves over time so that wildlife management and conflict management with farmers is based on scientific data. In this way, we can make decisions, create patterns of coexistence and signal when there are threats to both humans and wolves, such as the occurrence of hybridisation.” – Dr Ruben Iosif, coordinator of the wildlife monitoring department at Foundation Conservation Carpathia

Wolf pups playing (c) B&C Promberger

Balancing Coexistence

By securing natural forests, implementing restoration measures, and promoting coexistence with local communities the Foundation Conservation Carpathia aims to ensure an abundance of prey species and freedom of movement for wolves for genetic exchange. The organisation’s efforts also aim to prevent conflicts between wildlife and local communities by creating areas free from trophy hunting and ensuring that wildlife has the resources it needs to survive.

Our Conclusion

The presence of wolves influences the abundance of prey species and supports the complex web of life. Ecosystems rely on the presence of wolves to maintain balanced  populations of prey species. The predation of ungulates (red deer, roe deer, wild boar) by wolves regulates the spatial distribution and size of herds so that herbivore pressure on vegetation is kept at a tolerable level, as heavy grazing by herbivores could be detrimental to forest regeneration.

Scientific monitoring has the power to drive change and our work contributes to an objective understanding of wolf behaviour, interactions and needs. The results of our study show that genetic monitoring of the wolf population, pack structure, pack dynamics and wolf-dog hybridisation can be implemented at a regional scale in the Carpathians, and that annual surveys can clarify demographic trends. This type of monitoring scheme, implemented in several pilot areas of Romania, can provide crucial information on the viability of the wolf population in the face of current environmental, management, and coexistence challenges.

 

Words by Georgiana Andreea Andrei, Senior Communications Specialist at Foundation Conservation Carpathia

Further Information:

The complete study: https://www.carpathia.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/2.Foundation-Conservation-Carpathia-Report-on-monitoring-wolf-using-non-invasive-DNA-sampling-in-the-Romanian-Carpathians-1.pdf

Study data summary: http://tiny.cc/TrackingCarpathianWolves


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