Madrid – Antonio Navarro remembers when hunters paid 14,900 euros ($16,020) for rights to kill wolves nine years ago in Villardeciervos, a village near Spain’s border with Portugal. Now, they can go for about a quarter of that.
The drop shows how hard the Spanish countryside was hit by the five-year-long economic slump from which the country is now emerging, said Navarro, a former economist at power company Iberdrola who now runs a hotel in the region. It may also be evidence that wolf-spotting tours and environmental awareness are leading Spaniards to see the animals as better alive than dead, he said.
While still viewed as an ancestral foe in the Spanish highlands — a wolf corpse was left hanging from an Asturian road sign last month — farmers and conservationists are finding enough common ground to allow the mythical predators to survive in their natural habitat, said Fernando Fernandez, a spokesman on rural affairs for the Cantabrian Regionalist Party.
“Perhaps no other species stirs so much hatred and emotion at the same as the wolf does — it’s part of our Spanish experience,” said Fernandez, who grew up in a region of southern Cantabria where wolves roamed. “It’s an emblematic species and it must survive but mutual understanding on all sides is crucial.”
Canis lupus signatus, the wolf breed native to the Iberian Peninsula, has been able to extend its presence beyond its stronghold in the north west of Spain even though overall numbers may not have risen, said Juan Angel de la Torre, chairman of the Association for Conservation and Study of the Iberian Wolf. A 1980s study by the Institute for Nature Conservation estimated the wolf population at up to 2,000, distributed over 100,000 square kilometers (62,150 miles).
The annual March auction in Villardeciervos of permits to kill wolves and other animals, including roe and red deer, puts the village of 450 on the front line of the cultural debate over the canine predator’s place in Spain. This year’s auction raised about 50,000 euros to be distributed among villages in the Sierra de la Culebra hunting reserve, El Norte de Castilla newspaper reported.
Hunting is the best way to control wolves in the region that now number around 90 prowling in about 10 packs, said Jose Manuel Soto, the official responsible for environmental issues in Zamora at COAG, a farmer’s union.
Castilla de Leon is home to about 60 percent of Spanish wolves and the population in the region rose 20 percent from 2001 to 2013 to about 179 packs, said Javier Munoz, the regional government’s co-ordinator of environmental services. Control of the numbers through hunting is necessary and does not affect the conservation of the species, he said by phone.
“Wolves have always have been here but that doesn’t mean there can’t be any control,” said Soto. “You can’t put wolves above humans because that’s going to end badly.”
Changing attitudes toward wolves have made hunters more discreet about wanting to kill them.
“It could be that fashions have changed and not as many people want to hang a wolf’s head on their wall,” said Antonio Uzal, a lecturer in wildlife conservation at Nottingham Trent University in Britain.
The regional government’s policy of promoting wolf hunts also goes against economic good sense in a remote part of Spain that stands to gain much more from promoting the animal’s presence, said Navarro. He now runs a country hotel offering wildlife activities including “wolf tours” in San Pedro de las Herrerias, a village in the hunting reserve.
“There are more and more people coming here because it’s home to wolves in the wild,” said Navarro, who estimates that 70 percent of his revenue comes from “wolf-spotters” who travel from all over Europe to see the animals. “It doesn’t make sense to kill them.”
Wolves and the legends surrounding them have kept their hold on the Spanish imagination, said Fernandez.
“The hatred comes from the time when Spain was much poorer and if a wolf killed six or seven of your sheep it was a disaster,” he said.
For the tourists who come to Sierra de Culebra to try to see wolves, the animals represent nature in its wildest form, said John Hallowell, who leads tracking trips firm in the region with his firm Wild Wolf Experience.
“I’ve been fascinated with wolves since when I was a child,” he said.
Last month the regional government of Asturias agreed to a plan to manage its wolf population. On the same day, a wolf corpse was found hanging on a road sign in the Asturian town of Lena, according to El Comercio, a local newspaper.
“There are still people out there that won’t accept the presence of wolves of any kind,” said Uzal. “This is their way of saying they’re still here.”
Earlier this year, environmental groups and unions in Cantabria reached agreement on a wolf-management plan that accepts the need to control populations while accepting that the animal is here to stay.
A better response would be a national wolf plan that takes account of local conditions rather than different regional plans, said Uzal.
Wolves can travel 100 kilometers a day (62 miles) and constantly move between different hunting jurisdictions while the species is protected in neighboring Portugal. They are a fact of life in the Sierra de la Culebra and local people know how to live with them, said de Soto of the farmers’ union, who keeps sheep.
“If you’re going to farm sheep here, you must have a good shepherd and you must have mastiffs to keep the wolves away,” he said. “What we can’t have is people from Madrid or elsewhere telling us how to manage how we do things.”