Experts are concerned that the culling of wolves in northern Israel could put the animal’s future in the country at risk.
By Zafrir Rinat | Jul.13, 2012

The daytime sight of grazing cattle on the Golan Heights gives way to a nighttime drama – packs of wolves set on the herds. And this problem might not exist if it weren’t for a program to keep the jackal population down by clearing out carcasses, which wolves also feed on.

According to a report by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, about 50 wolves are culled each year to reduce the loss of cattle they prey on. But experts are concerned that culling could put the animal’s future at risk in Israel.

The Golan’s carnivore population has been increasing for decades. And wolves, which feast on cattle, sheep and poultry carcasses, haven begun to threaten cattle ranchers’ livelihoods.

So the the parks authority and the Agriculture Ministry have launched a program to let the wolves remain in the Golan and the Galilee, while protecting the herds of sheep and cows, especially the calves.

Enclosures have been fenced off for calves, while wolves have been culled in the southern Golan. Ranchers have received permits to shoot wolves that enter the enclosures.

Also, the Agriculture Ministry grants NIS 2,000 per wolf to ranchers who report their kill. The ministry says it paid out NIS 90,000 for 45 wolves shot last year.

The parks authority report, which includes data on wolves in 2011 and the first half of 2012, says there are about 160 wolves in the region, living in 10 packs. It notes that although last year more than 60 wolves were culled, predation persists; during the 18 months covered by the report, 150 herd animals – usually calves – were killed by wolves.

One reason for the problem is a parks authority project that removes animal carcasses in an attempt to reduce the jackal population. The INPA wants the gazelle population, which the jackals prey on, to revive, and to reduce the amount of food in general for carnivores including jackals and wolves, says Alon Reichman, a carnivore ecologist at the parks authority.

But the reduction of food sources for jackals and wolves, especially those that hunt alone, has a price – a rise in predation on live calves.

Experts say wolves are also turning to live cattle for food because of a reduction in the wild boar population – a natural food source for wolves – apparently due to disease.

“The cattle breeders say the sanitation project has led to more predation, so they keep on cooperating with the project,” Reichman says. “It has been decided to help them and allow more wolves to be culled.”

But Reichman notes that wolves can reach herds because the fences meant to keep them out are poorly maintained. “Fencing has to be improved, but not added to, because we don’t want the whole Golan Heights full of fences,” he says.

Reichman says that in the long term, the carcass-removal project will bring down the number of wolves and jackals and reduce predation.

Another – nonlethal – way of keeping herds safe is to scare the carnivores off. A wolf trapped alive near the southern Golan community of Had Nes was recently outfitted with a transmitter and released. Now ranchers know when the pack is approaching a herd; they then use a megaphone to frighten the beasts away. Guard dogs have also helped reduce attacks in the area.

A few ranchers have taken to sleeping in the fields with their herds; they then fire shots in the air to scare off predators.

In the report, Reichman says the parks authority shouldn’t cull too many wolves, a rare species. He notes that the culling of gazelles damaged their population in the Golan, while the culling of spotted leopards harmed that animal in the Judean Desert.

Reichman says the parks authority is therefore working to reduce the culling; he says that hardly any predators have been shot in the past few months.

“The INPA’s sanitation work is the right direction, and it must be expanded so that in the long run the number of wolves will decline to a point that suits available food,” says Prof. Eli Geffen, a Tel Aviv University ecologist specializing in carnivores.

“As far as shooting goes, my concern is that it does more harm than good. If they’re shooting at adults, it hurts the stability of the pack, which is based on hierarchy and holding permanent territory. That can lead to new wolves coming in, which will also prey on cattle.”

Geffen says shooting must be selective, targeting younger wolves that will keep packs’ natural increase down.