Monday, May 16

Here, we act!. Pictures of science: in the Alps, wolves hunt mouflon

Mountain valleys are often isolated places, where wildlife and pastoral life coexist. Some valleys are subject to major developments for winter sports, the consequences of which on wildlife and biodiversity are well known.

For 2 years, a certain tranquility has been established in the valleys, exploited or not, and wild life has been able to settle there again, especially in winter. Proof of this is this hunting scene observed in December, in the valley of Naves (between Tarentaise and Beaufortain) an isolated valley but frequented in summer and winter, around 2200 m altitude and not far from a sheepfold. Two packs of wolves are known to frequent this valley, and attacks on herds have already taken place. Defense shootings have already taken place in 2018 and a wolf was killed there.

During a visit to this quiet, snow-covered valley (five-day snowfall), I observed a crossing between two animal tracks, with a mound of snow. I identified two wolf tracks. I was then surprised to find, well buried in a snow tunnel, a large sheep’s head with spectacular horns spanning more than 65 cm. A real trophy, with a bit of flesh and hair as well as the beginning of the spine, which the animal had moved and buried halfway up the slope, between a sheepfold and a cross-country ski trail. It is common behavior of wolves to move carcass parts and hunt in winter when their caloric needs are high.

The mouflon, a species of wild “sheep” (genus Ovis), is not native to the Alps. It was gradually introduced in the middle of the 20th century, without any prior study, and for hunting rather than ecological reasons. This introduction took place from the preserved populations of the Corsican mountains (today unfortunately much smaller), themselves originating from escaped herds, which since the Neolithic have accompanied the human populations.

The wolf, on the other hand, reappeared there on its own in 1992, with its return to the Mercantour from Italy, after more than 60 years of absence on French territory.

And the mouflons, predated by the first packs of the Mercantour in the 1990s, contributed to this success by becoming an additional resource available to this predator. They therefore had to adapt their behavior (no more predators other than foxes and eagles!) in order to escape this efficient and clever predator. Not always successfully, as this skull proves…

An unresolved question is whether the two tracks observed at Naves (footprints of the same size and deformed by the wind) are those of two individuals, or of a single person who has followed in his footsteps, for example to bury, review or share his taken with the pack (usually four or five individuals from a breeding pair). Interactions between individuals around the “trophy” or simple individual behavior? The science of traces (or ichnology) can certainly not answer everything, but it nevertheless helps in the knowledge of current and past nature. Here, for example, she sheds light on the interactions between prey and predators, while both are gradually extending their range.

In this quiet valley, far from the noise and other disturbances of the mechanical winter sports industry but with only minimally disturbing activities, and if overgrazing is avoided in summer, a perfect balance between nature and human activities can be achieved. place and endure. Of course, this cohabitation requires adequate support for mountain players, both educational and economic.

Thus, the incursions of the wolf (an apex predator with a major role in the structuring of ecosystems) can continue there, as proof of a certain naturalness. And thus allow this type of rather unique observations (which it is possible to declare to allow their follow-up), as a counterpoint to the neighboring valleys disturbed by the resumption of activities after the long pandemic break, and in which wildlife must re-adapt to some level of disturbance.

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